As one might imagine, the retirement of the UND Fighting Sioux nickname has gotten a lot of attention, and my last blog entry inspired numerous responses both on the blog and on Facebook. One of the most common is the argument from tradition – the team name represents a long-standing athletic tradition at UND and deserves to be kept in order to honor the history of excellence it represents.
This argument can’t be dismissed outright because the logo itself is steeped in questions about tradition. Some claim that the logo is meant to honor the Indians after whom it is named, recognizing their achievements and culture. Others claim exactly the opposite, that it is a stereotype that degrades the Indians and dishonors their traditions. These are both positions that are well worn, and I won’t address the controversies here.
What I shall ask instead is the more basic question: is tradition a good in itself? Is ‘”because we have always done things this way” a good reason to keep doing the same thing? The best defense of tradition is by the father of modern conservatism Edmund Burke who argues that change is so destructive that all else being equal, traditions should remain consistent. In law, this principle is known as starre decisis – judges have an obligation to obey precedents and respect “settled law.” Supreme Court justices who believe in respecting the original intent f the constitution take this to an extreme. So, in short, conservatives seek to conserve (or preserve) the past – all else being equal, things should stay the same.
Liberals, on the other hand, believe that all else being equal things can change. They presume that change makes things better and that the positive effects of change (or, at least of trying new things) outweigh the negative impact of the change. Thus, liberal judges believe that legal interpretation should reflect current standards rather than original intent. Whether the liberals are more correct than the conservatives is a matter of great controversy, of course. Slavery would likely still exist under a purely conservative philosophy; inheritance might disappear under a purely liberal one. (See, for example, John Rawls’s argument against inheritance in A Theory of Justice.)
I’m oversimplifying a great deal of philosophical and legal argument here, but my point is to get to the root question: is keeping the name “The Fighting Sioux” justified by the fact that the team has been so-named for a long period of time? Is tradition worthy of defense in-itself? Obviously, the place where this question is most explicit is in religion: anyone who is religiously observant willingly attaches themselves to tradition and regards that tradition as good. For example, conservative Catholics think Catholic policy should remain the same (in the late nineteenth century they would have rejected the notion that the Pop was infallible, now they would support the belief) while liberal Catholics want the system to evolve. Reform or Reconstructionist Jews change their liturgy and the meaning of their rituals to represent discoveries about justice and science, while Orthodox and Hasidic Jews seek to return to an older time with an older philosophy. Every religion has this battle, from Buddhism to Islam to Zoroastrianism, and this battle has existed from religion’s inception. Feelings about sports in America are similar to feelings about religion in many ways, and it therefore does not surprise me that these days, at UND, we are, in essence, fighting a religious battle in the name of a logo and nickname.
So, again, here is the question: independent of questions of racism, representation, money, stereotype, or anything else, is the fact that the Fighting Sioux representative of a long tradition of athletics at UND a relevant factor in the debate about its continued existence? Is it a determining factor? And if it is, how are we to justify any change at the university when change, by definition, involves a partial (if not complete) rejection of tradition?