PhD, Carnegie Mellon University Chief Scientist, UnifyID
As I sifted through the tweets and rants protesting the pitiful refusal by the NIPS board to inflict a name change, I was shocked to learn that the sole emphasis of protest was on the prevalence of nips as a double entendre in our culture with obvious misogynistic connotations.
It immediately elicited thoughts in me regarding one of the most fascinating dark strengths of Whiteness and privilege in general: the ability to manufacture, nourish and sustain collective amnesia as a tool to cover up crimes committed en masse targeting the weak and disenfranchised .
Few realize that not too long ago, in this very country, the word Nips was a widely used slur for people of Japanese origin (a devious play on Nippon, the Japanese word for Japan). In fact, many a propaganda film and literature produced during world war 2 repeatedly used this slur. The December 14th, 1944 editorial in the Seattle Star, was actually titled “It’s Time to do Some Thinking On Nips’ Return”. Not even cartoons were spared. The 1944 Friz Freleng directed Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips, has shockingly racist depiction of people of Japanese origin. (Look at the poster below)
Within half a decade, the legions from both hues of the political spectrum, the social engineers, the power-brokers, the pseudo-activists, PC / tone police force, and faux-’woke’-allies had literally washed the slur off from lingual tapestry, from not just common parlance but also from commonly consumed literature. (See the plot from the Google-Ngram viewer below)
This graph alone serves as a tight slap to the shocking ignorance exuded in the board’s statement that reads ‘Some respondents wondered whether the name was deliberately selected for a double entendre. It was not. The name was selected in 1987, and sources such as Oxford English Dictionary show the slang reference to a body part did not come into usage until years later.’ . Yep. True true Sire! In the days of yore, circa 1987 AD, the word had no negative connotations prevalent at all!
This specific brand of toxic ignorance, I argue, has deep connections to two intertwined phenomena of misplaced victimhood and what I term as faux-ancientization of atrocities.
As I write this, I vividly recall my delightful conversations with knuckleheads (both here in US and back home in India) who have convinced themselves that they are being ruthlessly victimized by the devious lazy freeloaders who are milking the affirmative action schemes in academia or elsewhere, just because their great-great-great grandfathers were enslaved, maimed, ethnically cleansed or out-casted. These conversations are often laced with questions that are basically variants of ‘How long will they keep getting this free pass?’
This, in turn, is tied to the systematic castration of the education system and bowdlerizing and white-washing history syllabi by glossing over the severity of crimes committed, so that the next generation not just begins with that proverbial clean slate and grand delusions of toxic background-blind meritocracy, but also is coaxed into believing that the era of injustices was far older than it actually was. Hence the term faux-ancientization. Quoting Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring : And some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. History became legend. Legend became myth.
This fiasco in fact reinforces the need for having diverse boards/ panels / committees. In a recent conversation in a cafe in SF, me and my colleague were discussing an interesting facet of Colt — the flagship Computational Learning Theory conference, called ‘CALL FOR OPEN PROBLEMS’, when the person next to us (she worked in the justice system apparently) was rather shocked to learn that there was a flagship conference in ML/AI titled ‘Colt’. ‘You do realize what a colt is right?’ she asked. In lieu of handing a verbal reality check, she asked us to perform a google image search.
So, yeah. Here is what the image search results looks like!
1: Should you feel driven to do something about this, here is the change.org petition:
2: The hashtag for amplifying your voice on twitter is: #ProtestNIPS
3: This rant is an incomplete one. Given the impending NIPS workshop deadline(s), I am postponing part-2 of this rant covering the interplay between the institutions of dark humor, ethics and activism to the weekend.