Life, economics, politics, psychology, sociology, racism and other isms, law, history, journalism/media…all through the lens of sport.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

What's my name? Metta World Peace and self-determinism

I've got the Lakers/Thunder game on and there's a stream of tweets ridiculing Metta World Peace (born Ron Artest) for his change of name. I find it all the more remarkable as I reflect in the context of Black History Month.

It was 1967. Cassius Clay had changed his name to Muhammad Ali. Leading up to one of his earliest fights after the name change, opponent Ernie Terrel continued to refer to him as "Clay," publicly disrespecting Ali's decision to change his name.

Ali spent 15 rounds beating Terrel up while yelling at him, "What's my name?!"

Yes, this is Eddie Murphy, as Saul.
21 years later, "Saul", one of Eddie Murphy's four characters in the movie Coming to America, in discussing the name change in the barber shop, assert:
"A man has the right to change his name to vatever he vants to change it to. And if a man vants to be called Muhammad Ali, godammit this is a free country, you should respect his vishes, and call the man Muhammad Ali."
It’s a great scene on many levels, not the least of which is the refreshing depiction of “the barber shop” as an institution  for men (as akin to the hairdresser for women). Cuba Gooding Jr., actually has a role in this film. It’s non-speaking, yet it says so much, as he’s the “young’n sitting amongst and learning from the community elders.” 

And, even though, on the face of it, this is just one of those silly arguments that men have about sports, it provides subtly nuanced support to the bigger plot point in the movie – the young prince did not want an arranged marriage, preferring rather to pursue the romanticized notion of a marriage of choice.

Leaving his fictitious African kingdom of Zamunda, he travels half-way around the world to find…a woman who has pretty much the same problem, a parent determined to decide for her whom she should wed. The two of them, at first apparently “worlds apart”, yet share the common yearning for self-determinism, doing all they can to reject the external impositions bearing down upon them; they do not want to accept things as they are, they intend to decide for themselves how things will be.

Which brings us back to Ali.

Names are philosophically a big deal. One of the issues of names, especially in America, particularly when the person in question is an African-American, is the legitimacy of surnames that originated from slave masters.

In those tumultuous 1960s, not a few African-Americans asked the question, "why should I continue to use a name that is a perpetual reminder that my people were once owned by the master from whom we got the name?" Rejecting that "slave name" and naming oneself was a statement of self-identity, of dignity, of self-determinism and independence.

It was, in this context, that Ali was determined to punctuate his choice with a public demonstration of his utter seriousness. It was not a name change made flippantly or without thought.

Which brings us back to World Peace.

All those people disrespecting him should cut it out. 

Before we invest so much time expressing our opinion of what's wrong with the name, we ought to respect his right to change his name - he's his own man, and doesn't require our permission, consent, or approval.
While, we're at it, why not pause to consider why he changed his name? In his words,
"Changing my name was meant to inspire and bring youth together all around the world," World Peace said in a statement.
I've got to ask - what's wrong with that? Is that not worthy of some admiration?

Sure, we might question how, pray tell, Mr. World Peace intends for this name change to inspire and bring youth together all over the world? It may be that his name change does no such thing. But, that's irrelevant. He’s entitled to get it wrong (no human being is perfect). And, some may suggest that no one is taking away his right to change his name, it’s the name itself that’s stupid.  Maybe, but it’s still irrelevant, because it has meaning for him.
Nor would World Peace’s name change lend a whole lot of sympathy to people who give their children odd-ball names, because that is still something of an imposition on the life of the child. Sure, the explanation the father gave Johnny Cash’s “Boy Named Sue” is poignant and arguably supportable. And, children are under the care of their parents who conceived and gestated and brought the child into the world, so parents are not without some rights here. The difference with World Peace is obvious (or, should be) – he’s not making a decision about someone else, he’s naming himself.

I recognize that there are those who might feel that comparing World Peace to Ali could be considered an insult to Ali. But, I'm pretty sure Ali would not focus on the differences; rather, he'd highlight the similarities - they're both men, who changed their names with intentions to make a difference. There are worse things World Peace could have done.

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