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Scalping an Innocent Word

January 14, 2019

While this story happened in 2017, recent court filings have revealed it in all its inanity. First, some background.

On the Star Trek television series, one of the enemies is the Borg, a race of half-biological, half-cybernetic creatures who expand their empire by assimilating other races. Any fan of the series will be familiar with a mechanized voice saying, "We are the Borg. We will assimilate you. Resistance is futile."

A Manitoba Star Trek fan ordered a custom licence plate reading, "ASIMIL8" to demonstrate his fandom. Lest there be any doubt as to his motives, his licence plate holder read, "We are the Borg" on the top, and "Resistance is Futile" on the bottom.

Then the owner posted his new plate on social media and someone in the agency that issues them went into full-indignation mode, demanding that the plate be returned. Immediately. This person then initiated an internal investigation to determine how the plate got issued when it apparently should not have been.

What was the problem? The plate seems innocent enough. Well, according to the fulminating employee, it could be offensive to indigenous people who object to the concept of assimilation.

But surely the word "assimilate" is uncontroversial. According to one source, it's been around since 1578. Must we now exile it to the dumpster of Words That May No Longer Be Uttered? Must Star Trek reruns delete all Borgian episodes or replace the dialogue with, "We will [bleep] you"?

Now let's acknowledge that many indigenous people object to being assimilated, preferring to maintain their cultural identities. Let us go even further and acknowledge that anyone saying, "We should assimilate all natives" will face censure even from many non-aboriginals. But if we ban the word itself, how can we discuss the concept? How can we even oppose it?

But there is a more serious problem. The furor was not triggered by a complaint, it arose from one hyper-sensitive, non-indigenous employee. And that, I suggest, does a worse disservice to natives than any insult from the offending word because it implies that aboriginals are not capable of understanding context. It assumes they would react just to the word, not the conditions under which it was used. In a nutshell, the knee-jerk reaction of a government employee infantilizes aboriginals who, I suggest are perfectly able to differentiate between something they don't like and something that isn't relevant.

If I were aboriginal, my anger would be directed at the government official, not some television series fan.