Simplistic symbolism

In politics, simplistic symbolism hides complicated psychology and poor reasoning.

Labour ethnic affairs spokesman Rajen Prasad recently slammed as gross discrimination advice to an immigrant that they change their name to improve their prospects. 

What an appealingly simplistic narrative that is: It’s mean to make people change their name to fit in. But look deeper and you find the argument echoes a personal conflict, and is not so simple.

It turns out that Prasad once briefly changed his name to “Harry”. This reveals a truth about so much of politics: policy positions are driven from personal psychology, rarely rational logic.

That’s why we see so much policy expressed in broad terms, and anchoring around symbolic events or issues. In this way, the arguments carry emotional punch rather than logic, which makes socially them harder to counter.

Let’s examine the idea of name changing for a moment.

It’s extremely common for immigrants from anywhere to anywhere else in the world to change their names. There’s many famous examples. Steinweg was advised by friends to change his name to Steinway, because “English” instruments were thought superior.

They make the decision themselves because they want to fit in. They don’t want to make things harder for themselves by making it harder for those they have joined to deal with them.

The drive behind changing your name is deep. It’s about seeking acceptability among those you live with. Most of us want that. So we dress similarly. We speak similarly. We express emotions and sentiments within the acceptable frame. Our parents give us names within that cultural frame.

My point is that EVERYBODY is doing it. We have all adjusted ourselves to fit with others. And we’re adjusting ourselves every day. Given that we’re prepared to adjust so many deep things about ourselves, changing a name is easy.

Proving the point, as the American population has become more varied and self-defining, fewer immigrants are now changing their name. The need is falling. Political posturing doesn’t change it. Population and sociological dynamics do. 

Politics abhors complexity. It rewards shallow interpretation of matters. Prasad railed against a fundamental human condition to gain some transient news coverage, appeal to his immigrant constituency, and to deal with a matter important to himself.

In the process he interfered in the personal relationships of citizens; burnt a person who had offered well-meaning advice, gave reason for people to be wary of interaction with immigrants, made immigrants who have fitted in feel guilty about the way they did it, and possibly prevented some immigrants from taking easy steps that would help them. 

The reason why political discussion of ideas is often shallow is that people like simple narratives, and politicians like headlines that tell simple stories.

But I believe that simple narratives don’t need to be simplistic.

Prasad could have played out the “export” narrative and stayed accurate. He could have gained a headline by saying that New Zealand businesses should aspire to be “international” by learning from immigrants.

The NZ Herald listed name changes by some New Zealanders

* Top-ranked female amateur golfer Lydia Ko – Bo-gyung Ko.
* Former All Black Joe Rokocoko – Josevata Rokocoko.
* Former All Black Mils Muliaina – Malili Muliaina.
* Netballer Maria Tuta’ia – Solonaima Tuta’ia.
* Labour MP Raymond Huo – Jianqiang Huo.
* Labour MP Rajen Prasad – briefly changed name to Harry.
* First Asian Cabinet minister Pansy Wong – Huang Xu Yufang.
* Former Dunedin mayor Peter Chin – Chen Ronghe.
* Designer Vera Wang – Weiwei Wang.

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