There wasn’t any dispute that the use of the word “master” as a title for the person who headed a dorm at Yale was not related in any way to slavery, but that wasn’t the point. The word was the same as the word used in regard to slavery, even if it was derived from Oxford. It was the the sound-alike word, the variation on a theme, that in the ears of many deeply sensitive students dredged up the feelings of slavery.
And it was a good enough reason to eradicate the word from campus*. After all, the word was merely a product of tradition from a time when such connections were of no concern to the white majority, for whom no memories of slavery applied. It wasn’t critical to the campus mission. It produced visceral pain. And there was simply no good reason to retain it if it hurt people’s feelings. It was just an arbitrary word.
But for Lorne Grabher, his last name is not just an arbitrary word. It’s his name.
The Nova Scotia Registry of Motor Vehicles was adamant. The license plate reading “GRABHER” was deemed “misogynistic and promoting violence against women.” It was a surprise to Lorne Grabher who simply wanted a license plate with his family’s name.
Notably, Grabher has had the plate for 25 years after getting the plate as a birthday gift,. The name is German and the plate was used for decades.
It’s likely that the name was taken, or given, for some descriptive reason many years ago, and perhaps someone with a deeper knowledge of German can suggest what his ancestors did to deserve a name that would, in the year of our Lord, 2017, be so offensive. But however he got it, it’s Lorne Grabher’s name.
The desire to pay extra and put words on license plates has never been dear to my heart, but others seem to really care about it. Some people put words and phrases on the tags to tell the world how important they are, how cool they are, how they little they care about squandering money for silly things. No, that’s unfair. That it doesn’t matter to me doesn’t mean it shouldn’t matter to you. You’re allowed.
And so is Lorne Grabher. Except somebody saw his surname on his tag and did what social justice warriors must do.
Then there was a complaint and a former decision that his family’s name was discriminatory and barred by the government from plates. The spokesman from the Department of Transportation, Brian Taylor, said:
“A complaint was received outlining how some individuals interpret [the name] as misogynistic and promoting violence against women. . . . With no way to denote that it is a family name on the plate, the department determined it was in the public’s best interest to remove it from circulation.”
Who complained? Perhaps it was a woman who had been grabbed and held hostage, for whom the phrase “grab her” brought back traumatic memories. Or perhaps it was a person who turned over rocks in search of things to find offensive. It’s unclear, despite the passive explanation offered by Taylor. It is similarly unexplained how one complaint after decades of use translates into “some individuals interpret,” but then, I don’t speak Canadian so it may just be a language thing.
But the problem derives from the nature of communication, from words. The word on the tag was a name. That was the only message Lorne Grabher was sending. Yet, the message received, at least by the complainer, was “misogynistic and promoting violence against women.” And the official response was that “[w]ith no way to denote that it is a family name,” the sensibility of the complainer won “in the public’s best interest.”
Unlike the word “master,” Lorne Grabher’s surname isn’t merely a traditional word that, despite its lack of connection to anything sinister, can be eliminated from the campus lexicon to soothe the trauma of those who suffer its sound. It’s his name.
He could change his name, “in the public’s best interest,” so that the most sensitive driver on the road won’t read into it something that might be offensive. Or, of course, he could simply forego putting it on his license plate. After all, what’s the big deal about not getting to enjoy the vanity plate? Lots of people don’t have vanity plates and manage to survive.
But then, Lorne Grabher liked having his last name on his plates, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Even if it’s not my thing, it’s his, and he’s allowed to care about things that others like me do not. In the same vein, he’s allowed to like his name, to want to keep his name, and not want to change his name because somebody out there contorts his name into a meaning it doesn’t have. How did this become Lorne Grabher’s problem?
The notion that every word, every name, must pass muster with the most sensitive among us, lest it be twisted from what it is to what they make of it in the quest for offense, is beyond absurd, even for Canada, eh? Put aside that Grabher had the plate on his car for decades. Even if he got it yesterday, so what? It’s his name. No matter what twisted view the unduly sensitive take in their search for outrage, it won’t change his name.
And this is where the eradication of the word “master” on campus presents a problem. No, it really wasn’t a big deal to get rid of the title, but the notion that it is in the public interest to remove words from the lexicon based upon claims of outrage by the most sensitive person on the road opens up the chaos theory of censorship. Draw a connection and, boom, the word is gone! After all, didn’t slave owners wear pantaloons? Or something?
With minimal effort, a great many words, a great many names, can be twisted into a reflection of something racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Canadianphobic, whatever, and why must anyone, anyone at all, suffer the trauma of any word that hurts?
Pantaloons. Loons. So ableist. I’m literally shaking.
*In a related story, this is why masturbation has been replaced with self-pleasuring at Yale.