Verbal abuse

Offensive names are distasteful but within parents’ rights

WHEN I was in elementary school, there were two other kids in my class named “Michelle.” I was thus sulkily resigned to being known as “Michelle L.,” and I frequently complained to my mother that I wished I could feel as singular and special as the girl who sat in front of me in homeroom, whose name was “Destiny.” I was infinitely jealous of a family friend’s daughter named “Starlite,” and I fantasized that I would legally change my name to “Rose-Dust.” Then, my 10-year-old self thought ruefully, I’d never again have to look around to see if people really meant me when they called out my name.

But I have never been so thankful for my relatively blasé name than I was last week, when I read an article about Heath and Deborah Campbell, parents to three children: Adolf Hitler Campbell, age 3, JoyceLynn Aryan Nation Campbell, age 1, and an infant named Honszlynn Hinler Jeannie Campbell. The state of New Jersey, where the Campbells reside, recently seized custody of the children after a neighbor reported suspicions of abuse within the home. The Campbells vehemently deny ever physically harming their children, and claim that the names of the children were meant only to honor the “history of the Third Reich,” not to promote a Nazi agenda. There has been speculation that the state only acted so quickly on the dubious allegations on account of the children’s names.

Ignoring for a second the obvious implications of a child legally named “Adolf Hitler,” one has to wonder if the Campbells have ever read a history book. By “Hinler” did they mean “Himmler,” after Heinrich Himmler, one of the most powerful men in Nazi Germany? “Aryan Nation” is also a questionable ideological concept, not a historical human figure. And how could they have assumed — in a world where my best friend’s mother, who happens to be named Robin Williams, can’t even escape jokes about the male comedian — that anyone could conceive of “Adolf Hitler” as a name totally independent of its historical connotation?

I must admit that I am deeply conflicted on this issue, not on whether the Campbells are staggeringly ignorant — that much is obvious — but on whether what they did to their children should be punishable under the law. Assuming that their proclamations of innocence against the physical abuse charges are genuine, the Campbells have every right to give their own children distasteful names.

It is legal in America to subscribe to Nazism, as well as countless other hateful and ignorant beliefs because we, as Americans, believe in the right to peacefully demonstrate our views no matter how unpopular or incorrect they may be. To police the naming of children would set a dangerous precedent about the government’s role in our personal lives. It would undermine the views about the freedom of expression, religion, belief, and speech that are central to everything that the Founding Fathers fought to establish in this country.

Furthermore, there is no fair way to enforce legislation against parents with tendencies toward dubious nomenclature. At what point does a name cross the line from merely distasteful to offensive? Whose sensibilities must be offended? What if a mother wanted to name her child Osama bin Laden Smith? Jerry Falwell Thompson? Should we punish the parents of Joseph Stalin Brown? Charles Manson McGee? What about the slightly more probable example of a woman rumored to be named “La—a” (pronounced “LaDasha”) or the real-life case of a young girl in New Zealand named “Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii?”

At the same time, however, “Adolf Hitler” is not simply another trendy baby name of questionable origin like Bronx Mowgli or Pilot Inspektor. It is arguably one of the most recognizable names in the world, and it can never be disconnected from the man who originally bore it. The question is less about whether or not Deborah and Heath Campbell’s rights would be violated in the government-mandated renaming of their children, but more about whether or not little Adolf Hitler Campbell’s rights were violated the second his birth certificate was printed.

If Heath Campbell wanted to legally change his own name to Adolf Hitler, it would be well within the range of the law, even if it would lie miles and miles beyond the range of good taste. However, bestowing the name upon his infant son condemned the child to a life of judgment and discrimination. Little Adolf’s name might get him banned from certain schools, limit his job prospects, and hinder his college admission, not to mention earn him countless schoolyard beatings. Shouldn’t parents who knowingly cause their child this sort of harm, who are most certainly not acting in the best interests of their children, be reprimanded in some way? Doesn’t this sort of emotional distress constitute some form of abuse?

Ultimately, I can find no answer that respects the rights of both Adolf and his parents. Though my heart goes out to little Adolf, and I feel for the scrutiny he has suffered and will continue to suffer, taking legal action against his parents would, in the end, do far more harm than good to the rights of Americans.

Michelle Lamont’s column appears Tuesdays in The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at m.lamont@cavalierdaily.com.

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