Taking Offense at Every Word or Phrase?
A recent news item suggests that if offense possibly can be taken, it will be taken.
We have just been treated to studied outrage at the nicknames of the NFL’s Washington “Redskins”, Florida State University’s “Seminoles” and MLB’s Cleveland “Indians.” As my friend and colleague Randy Holcombe reminds us in a recent blog, the moniker of the “New York Yankees” may be more offensive to southerners than any of those names.
News reports now suggest that a small cadre of faculty members at the University of Mississippi want to ban the use of “Ole Miss” as the school’s nickname owing to its “racist” origins. Never mind that a survey conducted by the university itself found that a majority of respondents reported that “Ole Miss” was nothing more than convenient shorthand for “The University of Mississippi” (and it fits better on football helmets and baseball and basketball jerseys).
What is the origin of “Ole Miss”? Slaves coined it, in reference to the wife of the planter to whom they were bound. If the planter and his wife had a daughter, she was called the “young miss.” The term, hence, did originate in the slave culture of the cotton south, but its racist connection is indirect insofar as it grew from the linguistic usages of the slaves themselves. (Truth in advertising: Until 2011, I was on the faculty at the University of Mississippi for 23 years; I am a Rebel as well as an Aggie.)
Slavery and “Ole Miss” are anachronisms, but history happened and cannot be expunged by linguistic revisionism, unless we are willing to establish an Orwellian Ministry of Truth that erases our collective memory. Ole Miss already has banned the Beauregard (“Rebel”) flag and “Colonel Reb” as its on-field mascot, substituting for them a black bear having no historical context other than a possibly apocryphal bear-shooting visit to the state by Teddy Roosevelt.
The University of Utah just reached an agreement with the “Utes” allowing the school to continue to use its nickname in return for a promise of college scholarships earmarked for members of that tribe of Native Americans. I suspect that a payoff in cash or in kind likewise is the underlying goal of individuals and groups opposed to “Ole Miss.”