This semester, I’m taking Religion & Science with Dr. Jeri Wieringa (yes, she’s stuck with me again, bless her). Our first reading was one familiar to me: “What’s in a Name?” from Russell McCutcheon’s Studying Religion: An Introduction. This chapter gives excellent examples for the argument that naming a thing says more about the namer than the actual name. One of my classmates gave a useful example of this: Our own names.
Most parents plan their child’s name long before birth. It’s more about the parents and their experiences in the moment of naming than it is about the infant being named. I, for example, am named after both of my grandmothers. On my father’s side, I shared the name Frances with my grandmother. On my mother’s side, I have shared the name Sadie with my grandmother, great-grandmother, several dogs, and even a horse. Ironically, both of these women despised their first names and opted for middle names and nicknames to identify themselves instead. Eileen and Fanny begged my parents not to name me after them. The names were too old-fashioned they argued; I would hate being called Sadie-Frances . . . which, naturally, has made me love my names all the more. But, naming me after these women was not up to me. It was entirely up to my parents. Something that seems so central to my identity — my name — was not in my power to influence (nor my concerned grandmothers, as it turned out).
Last summer I had the opportunity to see Vincent Van Gogh: His Life in Art exhibit at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts. I was beyond excited to gawk at, “more than 50 masterworks by one of the most iconic artists in the history of Western art” as the museum website put it, and indulged the assumption that I would share the experience with other novice art lovers like myself. The website warned that tickets were no longer being sold ahead online but onsite on a first-come-first-served basis due to the popularity of the exhibit. In my mind though, this high demand simply reinforced the weight of the opportunity I had at hand. I would get to see several of Van Gogh’s most famous works (without having to purchase a flight to Amsterdam), maybe take some time to sketch or take photographs and be in an environment of appreciation for the arts and humanities (something I had been desperately craving after interning on a construction site for a month and a half).
After reading Aaron Hughes’ chapter on Comparison in Method Today for a graduate seminar, my cohort and I tried to sort out the criteria of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ comparisons in scholarship (and by good or bad we meant more or less useful for our specific purposes). While we disagreed with Hughes’ claim that fluency in a language is a necessity in formulating accurate comparisons, we supported his point on theoretical sophistication, which we understood to mean an acknowledgment of the ‘Z-factor’. This factor, introduced by J. Z. Smith, is described as a way of comparing two things by means of a third term or boundary (i.e. we can compare “x” to “y” only in terms of “z”). Part of what makes this useful to scholarship is the self-reflexivity that acknowledging your ‘z’ brings. This argument breaks apart the implied universalism of the term that seemingly connects the ‘x’ and ‘y’ being compared. For example, if we compare apples to avocados without acknowledging that we consider an avocado to be a fruit (our specific z-factor for this instance) we end up with an implied assumption that the apple and avocado are inherently fruits, without further explanation needed. This sort of logic — the kind that avoids signifying the terms we use — might seem unimportant in comparing fruit, but can have large implications when it comes to identity politics, for example.
This class discussion made me think of an episode of Derry Girls I watched this weekend. The Netflix original series follows a group of Irish teenagers during the Northern Ireland conflict (also known as The Troubles) and this particular episode attempts to reconcile the Z-factor between the two conflicting identity groups at war. The show focuses on the Derry Girls as they grow up in a Catholic all-girls school at a time when the Catholic/Protestant disagreement was charged religiously, but especially politically. In one of the episodes, the girls (and James, who’s considered one of the girls but is male) go to a “Friends Across the Barricade” camp, where they plan to build bridges—not literal bridges but metaphorical, as the main character explains to her mother before departure—with a group of young Protestant men from London.
Imagine this: You’re the driver of a trolley filled with people. Up ahead you see five people chained to the tracks, unable to move. If you pull a lever, you can change the direction of the trolley towards a different track, but in doing so you’ll kill a bystander who does not have time to step out of the trolley’s way. What do you do: kill one person or five?
When you phrase the question that way, it seems obvious that five saved lives are better than one. But the Devil’s in the details, as they say, and the phrasing of a question says a lot more than the ‘correctness’ of an answer.
No wonder medical school’s infamously ask aspiring physicians questions like these. Saving lives can be quite literal in many medical situations, and (fortunately or unfortunately — depending on who you ask) the residing physician assumes responsibility for the outcome of a patient’s recovery. So much so, that many even compare physicians to ‘gatekeepers’ who decide a patient’s fate as if it’s a binary choice as simple as opening or closing a door. It is easy to see why a relationship between medicine and ethics has to exist, but harder, it seems, to define that relationship.