What Good Does It Do to "Say Her Name"?

Names are more powerful than numbers: Individuals remind us of our shared bond.

Posted Jun 25, 2020

Jane Austen’s famous opening line in Pride and Prejudice presents a (sarcastic) “truth universally acknowledged.” While there are few real, universal truths in this world, there is at least one fact, one feeling, that is universal for just about all of us: Regardless of our political affiliation, beliefs, social status, race, gender, sexuality, occupation, or any other variable, we all want our loved ones to be safe. None of us wants to imagine something horrible happening to our mother, our sister, our daughter, our friend, or our spouse. It feels awful. But that’s exactly what a lot of us have been confronted with recently, in light of many of the personal stories that have emerged during the recent protests over police bias and use of excessive force. 

One of those individual stories is that of Breonna Taylor. In March, Taylor, an EMT, was shot eight times and killed when Louisville police officers, operating on a bad tip, broke down the door to her apartment under a “no-knock” warrant issued that did not require them to announce themselves. Taylor and her boyfriend were asleep when they heard the noise, and thinking their home was being burglarized, her boyfriend fired a shot. Officers fired back, and Taylor was shot to death.* Taylor’s name has been included in the Say Her Name campaign, which has encouraged people to use the names of individual Black women who have been killed by police—Breonna Taylor, Atatiana Jefferson, and others—rather than focus on sheer numbers of such victims in order to bring awareness to their stories, which often receive less attention than their male counterparts’. 

But why say their names? Why focus on one person when the statistics are staggering? Isn’t it more moving to think about the large number of Black men and women are killed in interactions with police every year, and that proportionally, they are more likely to be killed than other racial groups?

Sheer numbers are daunting, but they don’t typically spur us to action. But counterintuitively, thinking about a single person activates our humanity, compassion, and perspective-taking and makes us value lives in a way that thinking about a large number of people at once does not. This is explained by two related phenomena psychologists call the identifiable victim effect and the singularity effect

Karolina Grabowska / Pexels
We give more to single, identifiable victims than statistical victims... unless we think about it too hard.
Source: Karolina Grabowska / Pexels

Numerous studies have indicated, under a variety of conditions, that learning about single individuals’ stories moves us more than thinking about what researchers call statistical victims, or the large number of people affected by a situation. Thinking about single, identifiable victims may cause us to donate more money to help them and feel more distress and sympathy toward them.

A likely reason for this difference is that thinking about identifiable versus statistical victims activates different thought processes. Identifiable victims prompt emotional responses, which then promote greater action on that person’s behalf, whereas thinking about statistical victims initiates a more deliberate mode of thought, which may allow us to more easily rationalize not giving or not caring. 

In fact, researchers have found that if we prompt deliberate thought by pointing out the discrepancy in giving to individual and statistical victims, the identifiable victim effect goes away: people give less to identifiable victims, but do not in turn give the difference to statistical victims. Similarly, when researchers presented an identifiable victim alongside statistical information, people gave less.

While it is hard to wrap our heads around what it feels like for hundreds of people to be suffering, and attempting to do so can be overwhelming, it’s very easy to imagine yourself in one person’s situation. Since hearing her story, I’ve pictured myself in Breonna’s shoes many times. I’m a champion sleeper. I sleep through the loudest thunderstorms and my cats’ incessant meowing and scratching at the door when they think it’s time for breakfast at 5 a.m. And it takes me a long time to wake up. I can easily see myself not hearing a knock at the door in the middle of the night, if there was one. If I woke up at all, I know I would be confused and incoherent. When you hear someone coming into your house in the night, it’s extremely scary. Even if you don’t own guns, it’s easy to think about doing something in your sleepy confusion that, in this high-stress situation, could be perceived as a threatening action. 

ATC Comm Photo / Pexels
Source: ATC Comm Photo / Pexels

I suspect the same is true for you. It could have been you. Your daughter. Your wife. Your sister. And it’s scary to think about.

So what good does it do to “say her name”? Without saying her name, we will have less compassion. Without saying her name, we will see excessive force and reform as abstract concepts, and not things that could affect us or those we love in profound ways. Sometimes it’s hard to remember, but we’re all in this together, and saying her name might remind us of that simple but essential fact.

*Note: officers say they knocked first, but there is no bodycam footage in this case and multiple neighbors in the apartment complex heard no knock; the New York Times presents more detailed information here.