Quite some time ago a woman I’d met read me the riot act over my use of the “R” word. When talking about taboo words, one immediately hits the problem of whether to mention the forbidden word, and if so how and how often? A serious discussion can acknowledge the discomfort people have using a term, but usually must refer to it clearly at least once.
In this case the word was “retarded.” My use was descriptive, not pejorative, so I’m not entirely certain I was out-of-bounds. It seems like one of those fuzzy boundary zones where being respectful and polite gives way to being needlessly constrained by the overly sensitive.
But today I have a different ‘R’ word in mind.
The word is ‘Redskins‘ — the name of the National Football League‘s Washington, D.C., team. Many consider the term an ethnic slur against people for whom the most correct polite label is Native American.
The controversy over the team name goes back many years, but lately it seems to be catching fire. A number of sportscasters have said they will no longer use the name. The FCC may brand the name offensive for on-air use. The US Patent Office cancelled the team’s trademarks due to the name.
I don’t really have a dog in this hunt. I’m not a football fan. In fact, recent events (concussions, domestic violence, child abuse, drug use and various other brushes with the law) have me rather down on professional American football right now.
The fact is, not everyone defines the term as pejorative — there is some dispute as to its origin and true meaning. Yet most dictionaries label it as “usually offensive,” and a respectable segment of society does see the term that way. That includes people coming at it from an intellectual point of view as well as those with a personal view.
I think that’s a key point: the segment of society that finds the term offensive covers all types of people. It’s not a specific group with special interests. This tends to legitimize the term as offensive.
At least to some. A counter-argument is that only some people are offended and majority rules in a democracy, so if only a minority are offended, then tough luck, Charlie. (Note, though, that this argument implicitly agrees the name is offensive.)
It’s worth pointing out that this is the name of the football team of our nation’s capital. And that the NFL is the most popular sports league in North America. Or that (American) football is the most popular sport in the USA (has been for years — breaks a baseball fan’s heart).
So if there was ever a good time to play your cards as wisely as possible, it seems like this would be it. I don’t really fathom the resistance. I don’t quite understand the attachment to a name — especially a name that is a known problem for others.
It’s clear to me why the owner won’t change: doing so would cost a bundle.
But I really don’t understand the resistance of fans. Is the name of the team so important that it outweighs the potential offense and just cannot be changed? Exactly what noble traditions are so vital here?
There was an interesting bit on The Daily Show about this. Two groups were interviewed, one composed of Indians, one composed of team fans. The team fans argued the name was no big deal and no one they knew was offended… until confronted with the first group, and then the stammering and red faces and embarrassment began. Even those pro-name fans knew, in their hearts, the name was wrong.
Defending the name, as far as I can see, is inexcusable. There seems no rational basis for its defense.
As to names such as “Braves” or “Chiefs” or “Indians” or even “Fighting Irish” (all of which have been raised as counter-examples), these things are not the same.
The first two, and the last, terms present those groups in a strong light — the words have obvious positive value.
The third term, “Indians,” seems fairly neutral to me. “Native American” is a funny term to me in that I’m a native American. So, technically speaking, is someone born in Mexico or Brazil.
I recall reading about a multi-tribal council once where the consensus was that the preferred term was to identify a person with their tribe: Navajo, Hopi, Cheyenne, and so forth.
If you didn’t know a person’s tribe, Indian was an acceptable backup term. They are, after all, named (in English) for the country that Columbus thought he’d found.
One panelist quipped he was just glad C.C. wasn’t seeking the Virgin Islands.
As for the lady friend, I decided she was right. It is another word to be careful about in public speech. It’s not so much that I completely agree, but that I understand the sensitivities involved. Not everything is equal, and you have to think about what things mean to others.
Life is hard for those with mental disabilities as well as for those who are part of their lives. Trying to be mindful of what I say seems a pretty minimum way of giving them a break.
Trying to be respectful of others, in general, seems like a minimum contribution to the human condition. I suppose, in the end, the name of a sports team is a drop in the bucket of that condition. What really matters isn’t the labels, but the actions.