AMERICANS ARE are sharply divided over all kinds of things these days, but whether the Washington Redskins need a new name doesn't seem to be one of them. In an Associated Press poll earlier this year, 79 percent of respondents said the team's name should remain unchanged; only 11 percent wanted "Redskins" to be replaced.
Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III.
I'd have thought it was good news that four-fifths of Americans can still agree on something. The grievance industry sees things differently.
The online journal Slate announced in August that it would no longer use the name "Redskins" to refer to Washington's NFL team; two other journals followed suit a day later. To his credit, Slate's editor David Plotz acknowledged that "the word 'redskin' has a relatively innocent history" and that the team wasn't named to impugn American Indians but to invoke their bravery and toughness. Nonetheless, he wrote, the name today is "tacky and dated" – it's like using "Negroes" or "colored people" to refer to blacks. "Would any team, naming itself today, choose 'Redskins' or adopt the team's Indian-head logo?" asked Plotz. "Of course it wouldn't."
By that reasoning, Slate should also be banning references to the United Negro College Fund and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The term "lady golfers" has certainly grown tacky and dated. Is that an argument for changing the "L" in LPGA to something more fashionable?
NBC's Bob Costas jumped into the fray during the Redskins-Cowboys game last week, telling viewers in his halftime commentary that "no matter how benign" the intent of the Washington team's owner and fans, the name "Redskins" today can only be regarded as "an insult, a slur." President Obama weighed in too. "If I were the owner of the team and I knew that there was a name … that was offending a sizable group of people, I'd think about changing it," he told an interviewer.
On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, a group of lawmakers — including the Maryland congresswoman whose district includes the Redskins' stadium — have signed on to a bill that would effectively outlaw the team's name by stripping it of trademark protection. And in case that weren't sufficiently over the top, the New York Daily News on Thursday published an incendiary cartoon depicting a Nazi swastika and a Confederate flag alongside a Washington Redskins banner. The trio is labeled: "Archaic Symbols of Pride and Heritage."
Reasonable men and women don't take offense where no offense is intended, and they don't gratuitously give offense merely to be offensive. But people who traffic in manufactured indignation aren't reasonable. It's easier to parade their enlightened sensitivity, after all, if other people's sensitivities can be trampled underfoot. The enthusiastic crowds singing "Hail to the Redskins" are football fans, not Nazis or defenders of slavery. They're not the same thing, even if the sensitivity posse has a hard time remembering that.
I'm not a sports fan. I have no interest in Redskins football. And I have no trouble understanding why the team's name genuinely rubs some people the wrong way. But there is no limit to what may rub people the wrong way. Start scrapping names and emblems on the basis that someone finds them offensive and you'll be scrapping names and emblems forever. Institutions and societies can't function that way. No one is guaranteed the right to go through life unoffended. You may not like the name of a sports team, or a company logo, or a school's mascot. But disapproval isn't an argument, let alone a definitive one.
The original Minutemen defended liberty with their lives, but protesters at the University of Massachusetts objected to a logo depicting "a white man with a gun."
Why don't four-fifths of Americans — many American Indians among them — think the Washington Redskins need a new name? Not because they're in the habit of using "redskin" as a racial designation for Native Americans, but because they grasp that context matters, and that while a word used one way may not be respectful, used a different way it shouldn't offend reasonable people.
These name-and-logo battles are nothing new.
Twenty years ago a group of students at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst demanded that the school change its logo — a Revolutionary Minuteman — to something more sensitive than, as one of the protesters characterized it, "a white man with a gun."
The UMass chancellor's first reaction was to meekly acquiesce. "It's an issue we should look at," he agreed. It took a snort of derision from Governor William Weld, who mocked the demand as "political correctness run amok," to stiffen the chancellor's spine. The Minuteman remained. And the protesting students, one hopes, learned a useful lesson: Being offended isn't the same as being right. "Redskins" foes, take note.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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