In Killingly, Connecticut, the local high school’s mascot has long been a Plains Indian, and its athletic teams have been called the Redmen. Then, in 2019, the Nipmuc Tribal Council across the state border in Massachusetts complained that the name and mascott were offensive. [There’s an interesting discussion of the association of the color red with Native Americans here.] Once the complaint was made, other Native American groups decided, “Yeah! We’re offended too!” along with usual gang of offended-by -proxy political correctness zealots. (Does this all sound familiar? It should.)
As typically happens in such situations, the people in charge decided to take the path of least resistance—this is how political correctness and expression suppression take hold, as you know–and in July, the Killingly school board voted to eliminate “Redmen” and the mascot and change it to “Redhawks.” It’s just a name, right?
Well, not this time. The uproar was so great that restoring “Redmen” became an election issue. Supporters of the old name and mascot took control of the school board in the November 2019 election. However, while the new members had enough votes to eliminate the “Redhawks” name, they couldn’t muster enough to restore “Redmen.” “There is no mascot at this point,” said Craig Hanford, the new Republican board chairman, and he sent the dispute to a committee.
Fans of the football team, it was reported, shouted “Go Redmen!” during games during the rest of the season, wore Redmen jerseys and hats, and told anyone who asked that there was nothing racist about the name. One fan wore the grammatically perplexing sweatshirt, “Born a Redmen, Raised a Redmen, Will Die a Redmen.”
Louis Cicarelli, whose daughter Olivia is one of two girls on the Killingly football team—that’s progressive!—told a reporter, “I think of it as a statement of the pride we have, in our school and our kids and the town. Redmen to us is a term of endearment.”
Sometimes, when I consider these Native American political correctness controversies, I’m tempted to use the Clarence the Guardian Angel tactic and say to activists: “Ok, you’re offended by any reference to Native American history or culture apparently, and are determined to use the issue to sow discord and anger, grandstand, build political power, and separate yourself from American society. So let’s just erase all traces of your people’s presence and influence on US history, literature and culture: no Thanksgiving, no team names, no town, river, state and landmark names, no presence in movies, literature or language, nothing at all, because it’s all so offensive to you. You’d rather your history and legacy be invisible than have it misappropriated, is that your idea? Fine. Poof! It’s gone. Happy now?”
As with the Washington Redskins, I refuse to believe that anyone, Native American or not, spends much time or emotional energy being actively offended by a team name of longstanding. It is, and has always been, a power play. Such names are obviously not intended to be slurs, because they are the names given to teams people passionately support. This is Cognitive Dissonance Scale for Dummies stuff: if you name something you have a high opinion of after something else, that’s a compliment, not an insult, and it benefits the thing, person or name evoked by the name.
On the other hand, however, I find the impulse to be defiant when a team name really is a racial slur, no matter how long it has been used in a benign fashion, to evoke the Second Niggardly Principle:
“When an individual or group can accomplish its legitimate objectives without engaging in speech or conduct that will offend individuals whose basis for the supposed offense is emotional, mistaken or ignorant, but is not malicious and is based on well-established impulses of human nature, it is unethical to intentionally engage in such speech or conduct.”
On the other hand, said the three-armed man, what if the supposed offense is contrived, and part of a larger cultural assault? Then the Third Niggardly Principle applies:
“When, however, suppressing speech and conduct based on an individual’s or a group’s sincere claim that such speech or conduct is offensive, however understandable and reasonable this claim may be, creates or threatens to create a powerful precedent that will undermine freedom of speech, expression or political opinion elsewhere, calls to suppress the speech or conduct must be opposed and rejected.”
Therein lies an ethics impasse. If either party exerciser Golden Rule principles, there would be no problem. It resembles the Christian bakery cases, where the Ethics Alarms verdict is that both adversaries are being jerks, with the significant difference that changing a traditional team name is a lot more burdensome than baking a single cake.
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