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Fame and Power Used to go to Those With a Good Memory

May 10th, 2013 by dk

Eight times a year since 1912, a few dozen of the community’s business and civic leaders have met with a few dozen leaders from campus for dinner and conversation, followed by the presentation of a research paper prepared for the club by one of its members.

The Round Table Club of Eugene recently celebrated its 100th birthday. A handful of us took on the project of assembling a history of the first century of Eugene’s oldest town-gown organization. Each of us was assigned a decade to research and summarize.

My assignment was the 1980s, which was when the club first began discussing the admission of women. Once women were admitted into membership, some very prominent men resigned in protest.

I tracked down retired architect Bill Neel on his ranch south of town to ask him what he thought was most remarkable about that decade, since he had been president during those discussions.

I thought I knew what I was going to hear. I was wrong.

“I can’t tell you the exact year when it happened, but I have no doubt about one of the things that changed the club significantly,” Neel told me. “Name tags.”

Say what? For at least 25 years, the club has provided name tags for its members, neatly laid out on a table as you enter. Blank paper name tags and a pen are provided for guests.

“When I first joined the club, the city was smaller. So was the university, of course. And yet, the club was more exclusive. Everybody knew who you were,” Neel recounted. “[Eminent law professor] Orlando Hollis expressed it best when he said if you were qualified for membership in Round Table, then you were well enough known not to need a name tag.”

We can debate whether the name tags caused or reflected a change, but the result is unmistakable.

Name tags lubricated the evenings together. Nobody had to ask to be reminded of anyone else’s name. But the larger result, as shrewdly identified by Neel, was less camaraderie where it really mattered — on the street corners, in the city’s restaurants, or from the Rolodexes of members’ offices. Members lost some of their ability to bring social connections to bear on the matters of civic and campus life.

Adding women changed the organization, but didn’t weaken it. Name tags weakened the organization for the sake of not changing it.

Sociologists and anthropologists have calculated the approximate number of names most of us can easily remember. Those who can expand that innate capacity beyond 500 or so often have become our leaders. Their increased capacity for connectedness gave them all the advantages that a larger social network provided. “Word of mouth” was all there was.

Then came literacy and then mass media. Pamphleteers could for the first time manufacture fame from something other than a person’s ability to make and maintain social connections. Fame brought power, but power slowly cleaved from competence. (Military and religious rulers enjoyed outsized power for centuries, but even they benefited from their ability to foster alliances and allegiance within their circles.)

And now we have social media, where we “follow” and “friend” people we’ve never met. These metaphors are now completely detached from their original meanings.

Relying on name tags at events is like watching “The Godfather” with subtitles. Marlon Brando mumbles on purpose, forcing you to listen harder. If understanding him became easy, you might think his character takes lightly what he’s saying. The struggle and the meaning are inseparable.

We’re better off admitting our embarrassment when we cannot remember somebody’s name. It might motivate us to pay more attention. A friend of mine believes we could better society profoundly by simply delaying the exchange of names until meaningful connections have been established.

I’ve never seen him do it, but he claims to have at least occasionally interrupted the usual flow of a party with, “Wait, wait! Don’t tell me your name yet. Give me a reason to care first.”

Name tags make us more comfortable, and less competent. But sooner or later — we should hope — the competence is what will matter most.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs

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