“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”
Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)
I was going to blog about the death of Malcolm Mcleran, the loss of whom I feel more than I would have guessed. What I wasn’t going to blog about was the retirement of the UND Fighting Sioux nickname and logo. For those of you who don’t know, for several decades the university team logo and name have been under attack for being racist and divisive. The NCAA calls them “hostile and abusive,” and the ND State Board of Higher Education finally retired both yesterday. It’s a VERY big deal here in Grand Forks (there has been a run on Sioux merchandise at the bookstore, Scheel’s, and the hockey arena), but there isn’t much I can add. Frankly, at this point all there is is yelling and I intended to stay away from it all.
But then I got a nice note from a blog reader:
“People seem to be thinking of the logo as an essential part of UND athletics, rather than an accidental quality. Does changing the name change the essence of UND? Or could it be a “rose by any other name” situation, where the name is just an accidental quality that doesn’t change the essence at all?”
This, I think is a tremendously useful question. How much does the name of an object affect the object itself, and if we change that name, does the object itself change? Obviously, ‘pencil’ remains the same whether it is ‘lápiz’, ‘der Bleistift’, قلم رصاص, or עפרון. Does it then follow that Barack Obama’s heritage is different if we name his racial composition black or mixed-race? How about if we name my being Jewish as being non-white (this is not an argument about race but one about being othered, see the fabulous novel The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz). Everything has a name, whether it is to signify identity or simply to distinguish one characteristic from another. Names do something, the question here is how much.
Names do mean something important. Hillary Rodham Clinton is most certainly different from Hillary Clinton in some important sense, just as Winona Ryder is different from Winona Laura Horowitz. In philosophy, we might therefore ask how much a signifier affects the signified or about the relationship is between sense and reference?
Commonly, victims of sexual abuse change their names when they want to move to the next chapter in their lives and reassert their agency. The change is more than just symbolic to them. And, of course, people change their names when they marry, returning to their earlier names if that relationship ends. In fact, I think this last example is particularly relevant because to me, the retiring of the logo seems more like a divorce than anything else — a divorce that one party does not want, certainly, but a divorce nonetheless. There will be rejoicing, grieving, relief, regret, uncertainty, rebirth, and a whole host of other feelings, but most of these will pass and with time. The UND community will eventually embrace the new name and sports will continue to wield tremendous power in people’s lives that it does now. As many of you know, I have used this blog to ask about the role of sports in people’s lives before; this controversy is just an extreme example.
So, the philosophical question before us is, once again, not whether retiring the logo was the right or wrong thing to do, but whether the essence of the UND sports teams will remain unchanged. Is there something intrinsic to their identity that will now different because of the new name, or is a rose simply a rose by any other name?Thank you Elizabeth for framing the question in such a subtle and important way.