This article was originally written some time ago, but shelved because it seemed outside the norm of our standard article fair. However, with recent events, it seems like maybe an "outside our normal" article was needed. Dusted off and ready to go, here it is. Due to nature of the article, we will be turning off the comments for this one.
If you read the title of this article and began hate typing a comment about “social justice warriors” or “white privilege” or the “patriarchy”. Just stop for a moment. There is a real issue here, with real questions and maybe real answers.
Can we, as mountain bikers, name trails in a way we find funny, cute or ironic, and in doing so create hurt feelings or harm to others? How do we know if a concern is legitimate? What can we do if we find a trail name offensive?
Why asking about a thing’s offensiveness isn’t stupid
Let’s just admit a fact of life: what we name things has a power. It can celebrate an idea, a person or an aspiration. As humans, we try to choose names that are positive, or at least positive to that culture in that moment. It’s not a new idea either. When ancient Romans or Aztecs or Joseons named things, they too named things for ideas, persons or aspirations. This is one of these trans-culture, trans-historical truths. We can all understand this power by understanding the opposite is not true. There is a reason that Milwaukee, WI hasn’t named a street Jeffery Dalmer Avenue.
That being said, it’s also true things can be named for ideas, or people or aspirations that are later understood to be wrong. This is not a new thing. It’s true the cultures mentioned above named things for people or ideas or aspirations that later where considered offensive, disgusting or wrong. Certainly, towns were renamed for victorious army commanders in locations where those commanders had murdered, raped and pillaged the local populations.
Therefore, just by virtue of the ever-changing culture that is created in the cycling of generations, things can end up with names that no longer reflect a society’s values. Surely there are towns in France that were named by Romans that might contain slurs against certain tribes, originally in Latin and then Gaelicized over time.
This is very true here in the Americas. Here a long history of colonization, starting in 1492, as well as a history of chattel slavery based on the false notion of races. (It’s important to understand that the idea of races of mankind is a recent invention. Johann F. Blumenbach created a hierarchy of supposed “races” of mankind, the names of which are still used in pathology as descriptions of heritage. Before this creation, most of the world categorized people by their location or religion.) Because of this history and the underlying colonial and racial underpinnings, the names of locations, rivers, towns and just about anything else that could be named may have names that are racist, sexist, celebrate persons that advanced horrible concepts or many other things. It’s easy to think of locations that still use a derogatory term for native women that starts with “S”, but a shocking number of places were named a derogatory term for persons of African heritage that starts with “N” until recently. Many of these were not renamed until the 1960s or 1970s.
Even then, there are still places, streets and even schools named after those who advocated for, fought for or otherwise promoted slavery here in America. (Also, to make this historically clear, the African slave trade, as we know it, started with Arabs, continued with the Portuguese, then expanded to Spanish and English colonial interests. The modern simplification that the African slave trade was entirely a European & American creation obscures a messy and complex history of exploitation of Sub-Saharan Africans dating, arguably, to the time of the Egyptians.) There are still many schools in the southern United States who are named for Robert E. Lee, a man who committed treason against his government to support a rebel insurrection whose main cornerstone, as written in its own constitution, was the enslavement of persons of African heritage. It’s possible that a person could be attending a school or live on street named after a person that fought to keep their grand-X-grandparents enslaved. Think about that for a moment. Why would we accept names of people who commit treason against a government and in doing so argued an entire “race” be enslaved?
There is a common concept in most religious texts known as the Golden Rule. The specifics of that rule vary slightly culture to culture, but the basics are the same: treat others as you would want to be treated. In lands with a Christian religious tradition the golden rule is often cited as being spoken by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew Chapter 7, verse 12 – “Do to others what you want them to do to you.” Notice that in this context the Golden Rule is proactive. In other words, the person seeks out to treat others good first, not awaiting some positive act from other parties.
When it comes to what we name trails, why wouldn’t we apply the Golden Rule? We would want to understand the power names have and how they could make persons feel uncomfortable. This is especially true as many within the advocacy side of mountain biking are actively promoting the sport to persons who historically haven’t been the backbone of mountain biking. That would be women, persons of non-European/North Asian heritage. Imagine for a moment that a person in one of those groups came upon a trail name that made them feel uncomfortable or worse, contained a slur that included them.
That is really what we are talking about, not a political or social agenda, but just trying to be as welcoming to the greatest amount of people. One of the ways we can put our best foot forward is the names we give the trails everyone rides. It’s not stupid to stop and ask ourselves if our trail names are sending the right message.
Beware of outrage peacocking though
In recent years, a term used originally to describe the practice of fitting in with a group, like certain declarations or religious rites, namely “virtue signaling”, has been co-opted to describe those that are easily offended or use their supposed offense as a way to impose behaviors on others. However, this is a misuse of this term. In true virtue signaling, the group itself is in need of the actions and displays for its members. The members thereof engage in that activity to signal to fellow members they meet some standard. Often in religions, this is about some type of piety or proof of belief. Additionally, most true virtue signaling is private and insular, limited to the group alone or a subset thereof. Using a religious behavior as an example, while the eating of fish on Fridays for Catholics is an outward virtue signaling, a much larger part of Catholicism is confessing to a priest, which is some of the most private parts of Catholic tradition.
The more apt term for those that seem to find offense at everything and put on a public display of that offense would be “outrage peacocking”. Just like a male peacock displays for the hens already in the harem, outrage peacocking is for those that believe the same as you. But the displays of a peacock just aren’t for those he has, it’s for other hens not part of his harem and to demonstrate his fitness to rivals. In a social context, this outrage peacocking is to show off to like-minded persons and to assert dominance or fitness to fight to rivals. Just like having several male peacocks together leads to greater displays between the rivals, often in group situations one or more persons will try to out outrage peacock their peers.
There are plenty of versions of this, some funny, some rather sad. A few are downright tragic. It’s easy to point to eye rolling articles about what haircut you have, what kind of dress you should where or even what music you can appreciate. And as infuriating and eye-rolling as those can be the fact is that this outrage peacocking has turned perceived slights into reasons to go after people’s livelihoods.
While trail names and places are nowhere near as important as racial or social injustices, the fact is outrage peacocking can affect these too. Maybe 20 years ago, someone named a trail “Fat Bottomed Girls” as a Queen reference. What happens if someone complains that a trail name is sexist or makes fun of full-figured women? Are they being serious or are they outrage peacocking? How can you know? What tests should you use to determine this?
There are 3 factors you can use to help determine what needs to be done next.
Factor 1 – Context really matters
Context is everything. Just like the tone of your voice changes whether a statement is serious or sarcastic, the context around names of things can be fluid. Being in on the joke, so to speak, has its rewards. Many trail names require some level of knowledge to understand. Whether it be based on the history of a location, an event or a nickname, there might be something you need to know first.
You might ask yourself, what is the context of a trail name? Maybe someone complains about a trail named “Sloppy Tranny”, not realizing that the trail builder’s transmission went out during the trail build and that is inside joke. Today, the idea of using the word “tranny” is seen as a slur against a person viewed as being transsexual. But the context of the name has nothing to do with an attempt to slur those suffering from gender dysphoria.
But context is a pretty narrow ledge. A comment or joke or trail name can make sense in that moment where the context exists, but outside that timeframe it can be offensive. Remember that example of a trail named “Sloppy Tranny” mentioned above. How many people will know the context of the trail name? Will the assumption be that it is an attempt to slur a person or group? And that is where the narrow ledge of context becomes a cliff. If we must explain the context, then maybe it’s not worth the trouble.
Again, we shouldn’t want to create a situation where people feel unwelcome. Yes, we should be testing claims of offensiveness and not give into outrage peacocking. But that doesn’t mean every suggestion that something is offensive is wrong.
We have answered the questions of context, so what is another factor we might need to understand to see if something is offensive?
Factor 2 – No one is perfect
Recently in Minnesota, there has been a wave of renaming of public landmarks. One example of this is the renaming of Lake Calhoun. Lake Calhoun has been changed to the original Ojibwa name of the lake, Bde Maka Ska (nope, that is not a typo and yes, is as unpronounceable as it looks). Lake Calhoun was originally named for John C. Calhoun, former Vice President and Senator from South Carolina. John C. Calhoun is famous for pushing the idea of state sovereignty, so much so that the idea was called the “Calhoun doctrine” and it led directly to the Civil War. Also, he really liked slavery, a lot. And not like, “it’s the early 1800s and everyone was racist, so slavery was considered a necessary evil”, liked slavery. No, but even people in the 1800s where like “Oh, that is bit much with the slavery, dude“. This seems and easy one, right? No one wants their lake named after a guy whose philosophy started the Civil War and who said that slavery was a “positive good.” (And his calling slavery a “positive good” might be the least offensive thing he said about slavery. Seriously, he liked slavery.)
Yet here is the thing: no one is perfect. John C. Calhoun’s ideas were conservative, even for his day, but not drifting into nutty land. He was the Ben Shapiro of the early 1800s, not the Richard Spencer or David Duke. You see, at the same time John C. Calhoun was waxing poetic about enslaving people, other liberal politicians were saying this:
Free [slaves], and make them politically and socially, our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this; and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not.
That racist guy? Abraham Lincoln. Yeah, that Abraham Lincoln.
Everyone is a product of their time and their surroundings. Abraham Lincoln and John C. Calhoun may have represented very different sides of the slavery issue, but they had both been ingrained with certain feelings and attitudes about persons of African heritage. Time is a long sword and given enough time, everyone will be cut in some way by it. We all have people in our families that we look up to, love and enjoy that voted for racist policies, believed this group or that group was lesser or had some thoughts about gender roles, sexuality or morals we would find repugnant today. If we went far enough back in our family histories, we would find people who machine-gunned villagers into ditches, whipped “those” people, raped and pillaged or any number of unspeakable acts.
The point here isn’t that you should name things after John C. Calhoun or not name things after Abraham Lincoln, it’s that even the best people have actions and attitudes that future generations will look down upon. Think that isn’t true?
You might think that someone like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. no one could find fault within future generations and would be a safe bet for a trail name. Well, hope you think the #MeToo movement is just a fad and that consent with sexual agency are quaint notions. Because Dr. King is well known for his affairs, to the point the FBI tried bribing him with them. While ministers or leaders of political movements are pretty much defined by having mistresses, the fact is many of his affairs were with subordinates. When someone is decades older than you, your minister and the leader of a social cause you are fighting for, the amount of agency you have in that relationship is low. Not so #MeToo friendly. In 50 or 100 years, could we find ourselves taking statues of Dr. King down or renaming geological markers because his relationships may have lacked the agency future generations expect?
But what if the fault or imperfection is really bad? Imagine for a moment we are in Little Falls, MN and our local trail system has a trail named after Charles Lindbergh. But recently, we listened to an episode of Behind the Bastards and found out old Charley boy loved him some fascism. So, what should we do? Charles Lindbergh is a hero to the area with plenty of communal pride over having a native son be the first to cross the Atlantic Ocean solo. Renaming anything named for the pride of Morrison County will be looked at by the locals as a smack in the face. At some point we will have to decide if Charles Lindbergh’s racism, anti-Semitism and Hitler love outdoes the good he did. The question to ask here is whether Charles Lindbergh’s actions and viewpoints were outside the mainstream for the time. That answer is a full throated “yes”. If that answer is “yes”, then what we do about that trail named after him therefore comes down to a choice. It’s a choice between honoring a set of (wrong) ideas he championed or local pride.
Going back to our Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. example above, we might find that going through the same tests we come up with very different answers. Dr. King’s dalliances, where, at the time, not considered unusual. In fact, whether we are talking about former presidents or any number of Hollywood celebrities, May-December romances still occur with regularity. While there are some serious questions of agency and power dynamics between partners where one partner has vastly larger social, economic, religious, or political clout and is much older, the fact is that these types of relationships between adults still happen. The fact is, while we can’t dismiss the questions of agency his affairs bring up, the stain on Dr. King’s overall life is rather small from them. The question to ask is whether Dr. King’s actions and viewpoints were outside the mainstream for the time. They were not, no matter what we (or future generations), would think of them. Therefore, there aren’t likely to be any serious discussions of renaming a trail named after Dr. King.
The fact is not every person’s life is so clear cut. Maybe the bigger lesson of this factor is that naming things after people is always expecting people to be perfect, which they never are.
Factor 3 – Be fair when using the editing pen
The one foible of all humans is our hypocrisy. We all believe ourselves or our group to be better people and doing the right thing while other people or groups are not. Whether we frame “doing better than them” in the form of religious, political, social or personal terms, we all do it. Unfortunately, if we are confronted with a concern about a trail name, we can find our decision swayed one way or another by our own hypocrisy. It’s easy to talk about how offensive that trail name is when it involves other people’s beliefs and heroes but way harder when it involves our beliefs and heroes.
Think about the example of the lake name, mentioned above, Lake Calhoun that was named after John C. Calhoun. The stated reason for John C. Calhoun’s name being attached to the lake as being unacceptable was his defense (maybe promotion would be a more accurate description) of slavery. The argument in renaming the lake to the Ojibwa name of Bde Maka Ska has been that the name a) honors the Ojibwa, the original people of Minnesota and b) doesn’t honor a slave holder who loved him some slavery and c) shows modern citizens have a desire to correct wrongs of the past. Great, right? Well… The Ojibwe, like almost all North American First Nations, practiced slavery. Yes, it wasn’t the racially based chattel slavery of Europeans, but it was slavery none the less. Let’s be clear about this so no one thinks we are pointing to a false equivalency - the slavery of the Ojibwa was not equal to the slavery of the Spanish, the English and then the Americans, not by a long shot. But it was slavery. If our litmus test is about slavery, not about variations or severity thereof, then we are hypocrites for finding one person’s view of slavery are unacceptable while excusing the viewpoint of generations of a tribe over the course of thousands of years.
The thing is, we all fall into this trap. It’s easy to “yeah, but…” away issues with the things we like, we are part of, or we find funny. No one is immune to it. But let us not turn a desire to be less offensive into a type of NewSpeak that becomes a form of political or social censorship.
If the idea of renaming the “Cuntbuster” trail in Vancouver was ever discussed seriously, its likely many of the trail name defenders would be extremely liberal by any stretch of the imagination. Probably many of those same persons would chaff at someone calling women “girls” or “chicks” and yet they would “yeah, but…” some reason that name is okay. If we all agree that a particular trail name is fine, then we can’t turn around and complain about some other misogynistic trail name as we have set the bar at a certain level.
If we decide to use the pen of editing of the past to right the wrongs, real or imagined, we have to be careful to apply that pen equally. It’s not always easy. There are times where the best course of action is to think about it and ask if your own bias and tainting what we want to edit. Honestly, that is hard as the thing about bias is that they can be quite stealthy or even so ingrained that we don’t think they are a bias.
There is a way out of this
Is there a way out of this morass of trying to re-litigate the past? There is. And it starts with stopping and listening. Not to the people we agree with, but the people who have the experiences different from us, politics different from us, beliefs different from us. We might just learn something and, more importantly, we might help them to see that things are different than they believe.
Here at CityMTB we make no bones about the fact that Daryl Davis is our hero. There is a reason for that. By just talking and listening and politely asking, he has done more for racial healing that all of Black Twitter combined. If you don’t know who Daryl Davis is, we will let him explain what he does:
But what if that person or those people did something terrible to us personally or our people? Certainly, just being willing to talk to that person can’t happen, right? And forgiving them, that has to be out of the question. Maybe you should look at this photo:
Some context is needed here, so let’s show a picture of these people from when they were younger:
On the right is Oskar Gröning in his Unterscharführer uniform just before his stationing at Auschwitz as a member of the Schutzstaffel (SS). On the left is Eva Mozes Kor (with her twin sister Miriam). This photo was taken before they went to the ghetto and finally, Auschwitz, where they both where experimented on by Josef Mengele.
That first picture is Eva Mozes Kor hugging Oskar Gröning at his trial in 2015 for being an accessory to 300,000 murders during his time in Auschwitz in 1944. 1944 was the year Eva Mozes Kor and her family arrived. Only her and Miriam survived out of the dozens of family members who arrived on the train.
If Eva Mozes Kor can find it in her heart to talk to, listen to, hug and forgive the man who sorted through her family’s possessions before they were marched to their death (or during/after, depending when Oskar Gröning arrived for work on any given day), then maybe there is hope for us all yet. Whether our ancestors where the slaves or the slave owners, whether they burnt the villages or were burned out of villages, whether they did the machine gunning or found themselves dead at the bottom of the ditch, the fact is the cycle will never end if we don’t all become our own Eva Mozes Kor.
We can start that process by understanding the power names can have on others. We also need to admit that with many things, including names of trails, the potential to dredge up inequalities or hurt can stall the healing. Yeah, that trail name might seem funny or harmless to you, but its way less funny and certainly not harmless if the joke was on you or the people you love. Maybe that person is being overly sensitive, but if that trail name is causing harm to a group, even if that harm is just reminding them of other’s negative beliefs, then wouldn’t it be in our best interests to try and reduce that harm?
There is a balancing act here, no doubt about it. We should beat down any outrage peacocking we find with extreme prejudice. That means really looking at context of the name, both past and present. If it involves a person or people, we need to see if their personal beliefs or foibles where unusual for their day. But whether we are thinking of context or a person, we need to be careful not to impose rules that are more about censoring the things we just don’t like (or understand) while giving a pass to things we understand or like.
To put it in other terms, when you come across that trail name that seems offensive, don’t get all self-righteous on social media, don’t fire off an angry email, be a Daryl Davis. Sit down with the people who named the trail, tell them how it makes you feel and explain why. Listen to what they say. Don’t get defensive. Just have a conversation. Maybe you might change their mind. Maybe they might change yours. If you can’t come to some agreement, then be an Eva Mozes Kor. Forgive them, maybe hug them, and move on. The past is the past and the future needs more people who care for each other. Because if we remember it’s about caring for people, we all will end up “woke enough”.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.