Friday, September 30, 2005

Sinclair's "Fightin' Hyman" Strikes Again

In Mark Hyman’s most recent commentary, we’ve got a perfect example of how, independent of his specific views on a given issue, Hyman’s rhetoric trivializes and corrodes legitimate debate in the public sphere.

The topic du jour is the NCAA ban on Native American mascots. This is a subject that, as narrow as it might seem, leads to some interesting and important conversations about race, democracy, history, and the role of symbols in society. There are good points to be made by voices all along the spectrum of the issue, from those who say mascots are harmless cartoonish figures that shouldn’t be taken seriously, to those who think any ethnic term has no place in the pantheon of team or organizational mascots.

But Hyman doesn’t make a serious argument. Instead, he presents a laundry list of other phrases that he feels are parallel to collegiate mascot names that he thinks would have to be done away with as well. He sarcastically suggests that bans should be placed on phrases such as “Danish pastry,” “Scotch whisky,” and “Swiss army knife,” should be done away with, given the logic of the NCAA.

This is both not terribly clever and utterly irrelevant to the discussion. Humor can be a useful persuasive tool, even when discussing the most serious of issues, but it must be on target to work.

The problem is that Hyman’s analogies aren’t valid. The thinking behind the mascot ban is that it’s demeaning to use ethnic terms as mascots—a category of images that is primarily made up of animals and almost always relies on caricatures. The word “mascot” itself comes from a French slang term for “witch,” and has traditionally been associated with fantastic or imaginary creatures. It’s not surprising that some would find the use of their ethnic heritage in this way off-putting.

On the other hand, most of Hyman’s examples don’t use race or nationality this way. They are simply labels to distinguish certain objects from a larger class of items (e.g., “Polish sausage” from the more general “sausage”), and this distinguishing is based primarily on the actual origin of the item.

[Parenthetically, I can’t avoid mentioning one of the more moronic of Hyman’s examples: French’s mustard. Hyman acknowledges that in this case “French” is a family name, not a reference to the country, “but yellow is so descriptive of French foreign policy that it's still outta here.” That’s right Mark: a country that didn’t support a unilateral invasion of a country based on false evidence of WMDs must have only done so out of collective cowardice. You can say what you want about the French, but if martial prowess and sacrifice are some measure of national character (and I don’t necessarily think they are, although Hyman apparently does), let’s remember that France was instrumental in defeating the British in the American Revolution, produced the greatest military mind in the last 2000 years,
suffered more than 5.6 million casualties (including more than 1.3 million killed) in World War I (nearly 20 times U.S. losses), and lost more than four times as many of its citizens on a per capita basis than the U.S. did in World War II.]

Of course, there are a number of valid parallels one could draw to the use of Native American names and images used as mascots. The Fighting Irish, the Saints, the Angels, the Padres, the Rebels—all of these could be offensive to certain groups.

But these groups, for the most part, don’t seem to be terribly offended by these nicknames, and that’s ultimately the point: if a significant number of people feel offended by the use of an ethnic identity as a mascot, then they feel offended, and the niceties of logic aside, changing the nickname would be the decent thing to do. True, if only a handful of people protest a particular mascot, that shouldn’t necessarily cause a team or school to change mascots. But when it’s clear that thousands and thousands of people feel disparaged by a nickname (such as the use of “Redskins”), why not change it?

It’s hardly an unprecedented thing to change a mascot because it sends a negative message. Several years ago, the NBA team based in Washington D.C. changed its name from the “Bullets” to the “Wizards” because the organization felt its original nickname was inappropriate for a city that was struggling with high rates of violent crime.

This isn’t to say that the NCAA’s ruling wasn’t a bit arbitrary and indiscriminate. As I say, there’s plenty of decent arguments to be made supporting other points of view. As for myself, I think the common sense of decency rule is a fine way to go: if a sizable number of people say they feel demeaned by a particular mascot, why not change it to something more innocuous? I don’t know that we need iron clad, philosophical rules to determine the question. Common sense will serve us well.

But we won’t find it from Hyman, who manages to be unfunny, disrespectful, and completely irrelevant in a single commentary. It’s a Hyman hat trick!

And that’s The Counterpoint.

Hyman Index: 2.08 [Technically, each of his invalid comparisons could count as a separate use of a propaganda technique, but I’ll be generous and only count these as one collective use of invalid comparisons. Add this to the name-calling (“yellow” French) and slippery slope (“soon everything will be plain-wrapper…” ) and you still have a healthy Hyman Index reading.]


At 3:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

one more thing i think you missed. hyman suggests that "soon everything will be plain-wrapper, vanilla flavored and then we'll achieve complete multicultural diversity." Ironic, don't you think, that the spokesmouth of a company based on replacing independent local news with a single pre-packaged product lacking variety from market to market, would be concerned about everything going vanilla. just at thought. keep up the good work.

At 4:50 PM, Blogger Ted Remington said...

Yes, that's an excellent point. Nicely done!



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