Conflicts over language have occurred periodically all through history—command of sacred languages marking priestly hierarchies, languages of conquerors imposed upon or submissively adopted by the conquered, language as symbolizing class differences. Even today language is at the center of important political conflicts: between Catalan and Castilian in Spain, Flemish and French in Belgium, in campaigns to split existing states along linguistic lines in India, at our doorstep in Quebec where some “francophones” want to separate from the “anglophone” majority in Canada. Language has been involved in most recent “culture wars” in this country, some with religious overtones.
Three items concerning language, reported by Religion News Service on October 28, 2013, caught by attention. I have been mulling over them. There has been a concerted campaign to pressure the well-known football team Redskins to change its name and logo, which are supposed to be insulting to Native Americans. There was a big demonstration in Denver as the team marched into the stadium where a game was to take place. The event was organized by the American Indian Movement, which I find curious—since the appellation “American Indian” is no longer politically correct. (The new name is somewhat confusing, since in ordinary English “Native Americans” continue to be distinguished from naturalized citizens—since I belong to the latter category, I am thinking of a campaign to ban the use of “Native American” as discriminating against me.) Thus far at least, Dan Snyder, the owner of the team, has refused to consider the change, despite the fact that President Obama has expressed sympathy for the protesters. The demonstration in Denver is unlikely to be the end of the story. A meeting is planned between the Oneida Indian Nation (its foreign ministry?) and the National Football League. Litigation is being considered (“hate speech” and so on). One claim by the protesters is rather startling—that the term “redskins” historically referred to “scalps” brought home as proof of “Indian kill”: “It’s always been about the hatred of Indian skin”. As I was reflecting on this news item, I was reminded of something that happened close to home a few years ago: The logo of the Massachusetts Turnpike used to be Puritan hat pierced by a presumably Indian arrow. When I first saw this logo, I thought that it was meant as a warning against speeding. Someone, I take it, protested to the Turnpike Authority that it was offensive to Native Americans. The arrow was duly removed, and the Puritan headgear now stands unharmed.
Victimology has become an important fact in American political culture. Any group that considers itself victimized (often rightly so, sometimes only in their own minds) organizes campaigns, not only to stop the alleged victimization, but to prohibit any speech or behavior that may give offense to individuals in the designated victim class. Not being offended has become a sort of civil right, not only culturally but increasingly in law. A book by the late sociologist John Murray Cuddihy was published in 1978, when the recent victimological upsurge was just beginning; in retrospect it was predictive. The book, No Offense: Civil Religion and Protestant Taste, described cases where, respectively, Protestants, Catholics and Jews had to modify their more hairy beliefs in deference to American civility. One might imagine a future campaign to enshrine the right not to be offended in a constitutional amendment.
The second item is rather different. A couple in Tennessee had named their baby boy “Messiah”. I have not explored how this matter ended up in court. In any case, Lu Anne Ballew, a state judge, ordered the baby to be registered as “Martin” rather than “Messiah”. She explained that the name “Messiah” should be reserved for Jesus Christ. Not surprisingly, a panel supervising the Tennessee judiciary reprimanded Judge Ballew for inappropriate religious bias; this may be followed by a charge of judicial misconduct. I have no doubt that the supervisory panel’s action was constitutionally correct. I do wonder who was the aggrieved party in this case? The baby’s parents, for the state having interfered with the right to name their child? The judge, perhaps standing in for millions of Christians, being offended by an appropriation of Jesus’ messianic title? Or any number of non-Christian citizens who felt discriminated against by the judge’s ruling? Actually, the case of baby “Messiah” is not as unusual as one might think. Somebody did some research in connection with this story: The name “Messiah” was number 387 in popularity in 2012, according to applications for Social Security cards. If a researcher would want to demonstrate how far off Judge Ballew was, not only constitutionally but statistically, here are some research questions: How many babies were to get other Biblical names? Abraham, Joshua, Timothy? How about Mohammed? And, then there is the huge number of Latino babies entering life with the name “Jesus”? [Perhaps I should not have mentioned this. There must be any number of atheist activists or other ultra-strict separationists salivating for new opportunities of litigation. But then they probably don’t read my blog.] Which, by the way, recalls another politically correct name change: From “Hispanic” to “Latino”. Who was linguistically offended here? Brazilians, of course. Are there other Portuguese-speakers in South America? I don’t think that Haitians would like to be subsumed under the category “Latino”, though both French and Creole can justly claim linguistic descent from Latin.
If atheist activists are unlikely to read my blog, Malaysian judges are even more unlikely to read the decisions of Tennessee courts. Or they might have been encouraged in a recent judgment of the highest court in Malaysia (on the venerable legal maxim of “what is good for the goose, is good for the gander”—somewhere in the vast library of Islamic jurisprudence, somewhere there must be a fatwa which cites an Arabic version of this maxim). The high court held that the word “Allah” may not be used for “God” in Malay translations of the Bible, its use being reserved for Muslims. Of course this litigation was initiated by aggrieved Islamists. I understand that some Christians are planning to appeal. To whom, I wonder? The United Nations Human Rights Council? That body is not famous for its concern about anti-Christian discrimination.
The third RNS item takes us back to offended non-Christians (or, perhaps in this instance, any non-theists). Cadets at the US Air Force Academy in Colorado are obliged to swear an oath to abide by the institution’s honor code—not to lie, not to steal, and the like. The oath has always followed general American legal practice by concluding with the phrase “so help me God”. The Military Religious Freedom Foundation, a secularist organization particularly troubled by alleged Evangelical influences in the American armed forces, wrote to the Academy, protesting that the phrase violated the First Amendment, in effect constituting an establishment of religion by a branch of government. The protest of course implied a threat of litigation. The Air Force Academy immediately raised a white flag. The phrase is no longer part of the oath. (No one has yet sued because the oath arguably contains portions derived from the Ten Commandments.) This particular incident is of course part of the much broader campaign (by a small but noisy group of secularists whom I have called “Kemalist”) to expunge all religious expressions from public spaces. The federal courts continue to be busy with cases arising from this campaign.
Although religion is only marginally involved in the name change I’m about to mention, it does belong to the topic of victimology. The victims of historic racial oppression in America are more justified than many other groups in claiming an iconic status in the victimological hierarchy. For that reason most decent people have gone along with the name changes that have become conventional in recent decades—from “Negro”, to “black”, to “African American”—although it is not altogether clear why the earlier terms came to be deemed offensive. The feminist and homosexual movements have also gone through various name changes. For a while the term “gay” was acceptable to apply to all non-heterosexual orientations. But more and more groups felt left out. Thus the politically correct term came to be “Gay-Lesbian-Bisexual-Transgender”. Another word added by some was “Queer”, which I understand to refer to the classically “transgressive” quality of non-traditional sexuality. With or without the addition, this is a rather a mouthful (no pun intended). Understandably, the abbreviation is now generally used – “GLBT/Q”. So far, so good. But very recently I have noticed a new usage: “LGBT/Q”! Why this change? Could it be a very curious return of the repressed—in this case, of old-fashioned bourgeois etiquette? “Ladies first”?? – [I do know that some committed gays and lesbians read my blog—with a few reservations, I am in sympathy with their cause. So perhaps someone will explain the terminological change to me. ]
Let me conclude with a sentence that is very dear to me. It comes from the writings of an anonymous Sufi mystic, who lived in medieval Baghdad when it was a great center of civilization and learning: “Deliver us, o Allah, from the sea of names!”