December 23, 2004


According to this CBC News article, the Supreme Court of Canada is being asked to decide on a complaint originally submitted to the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission in 1999.

Dorothy Kateri Moore, a Mi'kmaq woman working at a sports store in Sydney, N.S., had complained that her boss, Trevor Miller, referred to her and other workers as "kemosabe" – the term used by the 1950s TV character Tonto, the Lone Ranger's sidekick, to describe the masked cowboy.
Moore said Miller told her the word meant "friend." But she claimed it was a racial slur and that its repeated use led to a poisoned work environment.
The Human Rights Commission and the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal have taken the position that kemosabe is not a slur and that Ms. Moore had no basis for complaint.

If the criterion is how the term is used by most people, it is pretty clear that they are right. The idea that the term is offensive is new to me. Tonto, the Indian, would hardly have used a pejorative term for Indian to refer to the Lone Ranger, his white partner. Nor is there any hint in the show that Tonto means the term in any way that is disrespectful. If anyone was slurring anybody in The Lone Ranger, it was the other way around: in Spanish tonto means "silly, foolish".

Nobody seems to know for certain what, if anything, Kemosabe was intended to mean. There's a good review of the possibilities that have been suggested here. It isn't offensive on any of the plausible suggestions. Both the script writer and the director thought that it meant "trusty scout".

Some people will argue that it doesn't matter whether a word is generally considered offensive or if the speaker intended it to be offensive: so long as the person hearing it was offended, that makes it offensive. The problem with this approach is that you never know what will bother someone so a speaker is always at risk of being accused of harassment. Even if culpability is limited to persistent use of the offending word after learning that it is offensive, problems remain. For instance, when dealing with a single individual it is possible to cater to his or her preferences, but what happens when one speaks to a group? A case in point is how to refer to black people. Everyone agrees that nigger and coon are offensive, but there is no such consensus about the terms black, African-American, Afro-American, and Negro. Many people have strong preferences, but in the absence of a consensus, there is no choice of terms that will please everyone. As far as I know, no satisfactory analysis of this question exists. That's probably a good reason for courts and human rights commissions to stay away from all but the clearest and most egregious cases.

Posted by Bill Poser at December 23, 2004 02:10 AM