I didn’t think much of it one way or the other when Harrison Weinhold brought up the Washington Redskins’ nickname during the podcast we recorded over a week ago. The conversation meandered from weighty issue to weighty issue, and the brief detour into sports felt unremarkable. After all, the Redskins’ nickname has been mildly controversial in some circles for a couple of decades now, with the anti-“Redskins” sentiment never gaining much traction.
We’d get a disposable opinion piece once in a while, and the odd publication here or there would announce with a modest dash of self-congratulation that it would henceforth refuse to use the team nickname in its NFL coverage. Generally, this was the sports equivalent of the intermittent, scary “summer of the shark attack” story: A few people would get riled up, we would worry about it and discuss it for a few weeks, but all was forgotten quickly enough, and the story would be revived a few years later and proceed through the same cycle.
That doesn’t seem to be the case now. This latest round of commentary is qualitatively (and certainly quantitatively) different.
Perhaps I’ve been more aware of these stories because of that podcast, but I don’t think that alone accounts for why the “Redskins must change name” theme has felt so ubiquitous in recent weeks.
The initial catalyst, of course, was D. C. Mayor Vincent Gray opining that the Redskins will need to change their name if the team intends to end their self-imposed exile in Maryland and return to the nation’s capital. A symposium on “Racial Stereotypes and Cultural Appropriation in American Sports” followed, where Washington Post reporter Mike Wise called for using social pressure to embarrass those who embrace the name in order to force the Redskins to change course.
Those events served as a starter’s pistol for sports philosophers across the country to see who could muster the most outrage over the decades-old nickname.
Notwithstanding the underlying issue of whether “Redskins” should still be in use, the story provides a terrific case study for several themes crucial to an understanding of the current state of our culture. Those broad themes are what interest me most about this topic.
First, there’s the disconnect between the views held by media and the views held by the public. After the deluge of anti-“Redskins” pieces over the last month, even the Washington Post‘s Dan Steinberg admitted that:
Holy cow, now every single media member in the world has written about the Redskins name this week. Latest additions: Sally Jenkins, Andrew Sharp, Chris Chase, LZ Granderson, Paul Lukas, Drew Magary, Kids Post’s Fred Bowen, Shaun Powell, Barry Petchesky, Mike Freeman, Will Brinson, Nathan Fenno, Joseph Hayes, Chris Mottram. Many of these people, you’ll note, don’t work for The Post. They’re basically 100 percent in favor of a name change. And I don’t sense that they’re changing the minds of many supporters.
Emphasis mine. The fact is that the media—the national sports media in particular—is populated by folks who generally march in ideological lockstep when it comes to issues of race or “offensive” speech. As an aside, I’ve always found it sadly ironic that high-profile journalists in a country fortunate enough to enjoy the blessings of the First Amendment are almost always more squeamish about “offensive” language than are people who didn’t go to elite journalism schools.
Almost as striking as the uniformity of opinion is the condescending rhetoric that many of these folks use to illustrate just how superior they are. That’s a hallmark of a modern journalism where the opinionated have become so confident in their own views that civility is optional at best. Here’s a sampling. First up, WaPo’s Sally Jenkins:
It would be nice if the NFL franchise in the nation’s capital were an example for all the land. But apparently Snyder takes his example from 10th graders. A couple of days ago, the club launched a campaign to defuse the pressure Snyder is under to change the team name by declaring that ’70 different high schools in 25 states are known as the Redskins,’ and therefore it’s surely an honorable word. What’s more, “Redskins.com found that there are almost as many schools using the name Redskins as Cowboys.” Oooh! And after school, for fun we’ll shoot BB guns at road signs! . . . I’m pretty sure that whoever wrote the Redskins.com post wouldn’t score any higher on a history test than your nephew who chews on his arm.
I would relish the opportunity to go head-to-head with Sally Jenkins on an American history test. Next, here’s MisterIrrelevant.com’s Chris Mottram on Redskin Jordan Black’s pro-nickname tweet:
Jordan Black is a white male telling a minority race that they’re overly sensitive about racism. And if your head hasn’t exploded yet, this stupid [expletive] Florio wrote about RGIII and the name change is sure to do the trick.
White males, amirite?!? I actually think Black was directing his comments more to white liberals than to Native Americans, but, anyway, SBNation’s Andrew Sharp is up next:
The real lesson from Monday and Tuesday’s explanations is that no matter what the Redskins say to defend themselves, it just leaves them looking a little more insensitive and desperate. Which I guess makes sense. It all comes with the territory when you’re DEFENDING A NAME THAT’S OBVIOUSLY RACIST.
That’s an important theme throughout—the idea that the anti-“Redskins” side has won by default, because any defense of the name is irrelevant. “Racism” is per se indefensible. More on that later.
If one reads the articles linked above, they range from childish in tone (especially Jenkins’, considering that hers appeared in an “establishment” newspaper, and not some blog) to reasonable (e.g. Florio). However, most of them seem to have been written using the same set of bullet points.
1. Analogize the name to ethnic slurs about which there is more consensus, especially black slurs. Highlight the fact that the name would have already been changed if it were a different ethnic group in play.
2. Point out at least twice that George Preston Marshall was a racist.
3. Offer some terrible alternative names.
4. Leave out the fact that the reason the team changed its name from Braves in the first place was due to a dispute with the Boston Braves and the use of their playing facility.
5. Mention that, sometimes, political correctness is just plain correct, you guys!
The degree to which some of these articles track one another is a little frightening. It makes the effort seem much less organic and almost coordinated. A lot of the beats are very similar.
At least based on anecdotal evidence, however, Redskins fans seem to be in favor of keeping the decades-old nickname. To be sure, there are fans who would like to see it change, and others still who wouldn’t care if the team were called the Washington Wimps if the switch guaranteed that a healthy Robert Griffin, III were ready for opening day.
The problem is that only one of these positions is represented in the mainstream media.
And I would take it a step further: Given the hysterical rhetoric used by many commentators who oppose the name, a national media figure would be hard-pressed to insist upon writing a pro-“Redskins” article and still remain employed, or at least avoid ostracism by some of his more outspoken colleagues.
The general public’s collective feeling on the nickname issue likely falls somewhere between “not that big of a deal” and “a debatable point.” But, when the media treats that same issue as a fait accompli over which there can be no meaningful debate (because all right-thinking people are on the “correct” side), we have a huge problem.
The media’s purpose is, roughly, to provide information and analysis that explains and informs. There is absolutely a place for commentary that takes a position on contentious stories, and I would never say otherwise. The folks who oppose the nickname certainly make some relevant points we should all consider. It doesn’t trouble me that commentators at the Washington Post or the New York Times or CBS or ESPN or left-leaning blogs like Gawker / Deadspin or Daily Kos take a position on this issue.
What troubles me is that they all take the same position on this issue.
The only pro-“Redskins” opinion may be found in the comments section of most of those outlets, or maybe on a largely inconsequential website such as this one. You won’t see much “professional” pro-status-quo opinion from any news source that doesn’t incorporate an eagle or a rattlesnake into its masthead.
“Aha,” critics would say. “That merely proves that the enlightened media members are right, Garrett! The reason there’s no thoughtful defense of the name is because that’s impossible, because any thinking person is obviously horrified by this racism. Your argument that the mainstream outlets and prominent blogs are all saying the same thing is self-defeating! Would you object if they all came out in favor of puppies and ice cream?”
I would, if a healthy percentage of the public—perhaps a solid majority—were against puppies and ice cream.
That is where we get into trouble. We should be a little worried any time the media lines up in unison on one side of an issue that the public sees as contentious, whether it’s something very important, like the question of going to war, or something relatively trivial, like a squabble over a nickname. The hive-mindedness reflected in commentary raises valid questions about the selective presentation of facts on the hard news side. Whether it’s drone warfare, gay marriage, or racial issues, just getting the same opinion regurgitated over and over by different people does the public little good.
If a mere ten or twenty prominent commentators all decide to voice the same opinion on the same issue, how easy is it for subsequent stories on the news side to refer to a “growing consensus” or “increasing pressure?” It becomes a self-sustaining story fueled by the news organization itself, rather than one that is given an appropriate amount of airtime / print space purely on its own merits. We’ve certainly seen this phenomenon in other contexts.
When outlets create or enhance the “weight” of their own news, that’s not ideal But the lack of dissent, and the chilling effect on any who might proffer a contrary opinion, worries me a lot more.
The “Standing” Problem
One feature of nearly every recent column I’ve read on this subject is the highlighting of a few Native American officials or lobbying groups who have voiced opposition to the nickname. They also usually have a line such as the one penned by yet another Washington Post columnist, Robert McCartney. In one of his pieces on the subject, McCartney quoted Redskins GM Bruce Allen’s defense of the nickname, then followed Allen’s quote by saying, “Allen doesn’t understand (or won’t acknowledge) that it’s not up to him, a white man, to decide what offends Native Americans.” McCartney, a white man, then concludes that the name “Redskins” is a slur that is offensive to Native Americans.
Let’s put aside the somewhat-suspect idea that only members of a given group have the right to analyze the offensiveness of certain speech. Let’s assume that to be true arguendo.
Then what do we make of the fact that the only comprehensive survey conducted among the Native American population as to the offensiveness of “Redskins” showed very little opposition? The poll, from 2004, found that 91% of Native Americans found the name to be acceptable, while only the remaining 9% found it to be offensive.
Let’s further assume that the numbers haven’t shifted so dramatically in the eight-plus years as to reverse the math. In other words, let’s say that a strong majority of Native Americans don’t mind the name. Perhaps it’s only 80% or 70% or 60% now, but who knows? If that’s the case, though, shouldn’t these columnists (themselves predominantly white) drop the issue, by their own logic?
Certainly, no one is as adept at being offended on behalf of others as are white progressives.
We saw this a couple of months ago during the Katherine Webb kerfuffle. In case you forgot, Brent Musburger had the audacity to point out during the broadcast of the otherwise-dull BCS title game that Alabama quarterback A. J. McCarron’s girlfriend Katherine Webb is quite lovely. He referred to her as—I hope you’re sitting down—“beautiful,” and joked that “you quarterbacks [referring to broadcast partner Kirk Herbstreit] get all the beautiful women,” adding that young boys in Alabama should be picking up footballs and throwing them around the backyard.
This good-natured exchange was, again, something that fell into either the “I agree!” or “no big deal” categories for most people watching the game. Yet, the vocal “this is offensive” camp initially controlled the narrative. As with the Redskins’ nickname, they were there to tell the rest of us that this was insensitive, “heteronormative” behavior. Timothy Burke of Deadspin (and author of the “heteronormative” line) offered some concerns over perceived objectification of Webb and said, in part, “For [Musburger] to assert that . . . every boy should try to be a football hero to get such a gorgeous woman, is where it is really not a good thing for me.”
Michigan State professor Sue Carter offered some very critical comments of her own to the New York Times. She suggested that Musburger even discussing the looks of Miss Alabama USA winner Webb, or anyone in the crowd for that matter, was “retrograde” and a “major personal violation.” Carter added that such comments were no longer an acceptable cultural norm, and it was up to people in the industry to “keep up” with this new worldview.
ESPN naturally apologized for Musburger’s comments, bowing, as usual, to pressure from the most-easily offended. The controversy may have grown even further—perhaps escalating to the point of ESPN disciplining Musburger—but was stopped in its tracks by two things. First, there was a dissenting, credible voice in Outkick the Coverage’s Clay Travis. He authored an outstanding take-down of those who clutched their collective pearls over the Musburger comments.
Secondly, the story also included one very inconvenient detail in its fact pattern.
Katherine Webb was flattered, not insulted.
At that point, the mild outrage became even sillier. If the person who is the subject of the “offensive” speech is not, you know, offended . . . then why should someone else be offended on his behalf?
To bring this discussion back to the issue at hand, even if Native Americans were unanimous in their support of the nickname “Redskins” (which I know isn’t the case), would these critics still band together to oppose the name?
This is an honest question. One aspect of this story that vexes me is whether the anti-“Redskins” camp thinks that Native American opinion is determinative in this matter. My feeling is that, even if a similar poll in 2013 showed a majority of Native Americans had an affinity for “Redskins,” whatever percentage did not would be deemed to be “enough” by those who are outraged by the name.
The New Breadth of “Racism”
One major cultural battle (and one specific disconnect between the mainstream media / academia on the one hand, and the rest of us on the other) is the question of what constitutes racism.
This may seem like a simple—even silly—question to answer. But I assure you that’s not the case.
For me personally, it is pretty simple. I don’t choose my friends or colleagues based on race. I don’t treat members of one race with more or less respect than I do people of another race. I don’t believe in the superiority of one race (or some races) over others.
But does that mean I won’t laugh when Adam Carolla makes a joke about a particular group, my own included? Of course not. Does it mean I’ll lose sleep contemplating the “appropriate” in-theater behavior when a white person watches Django Unchained? Nope. Does it mean I’ll feel “uncomfortable” or “conflicted” rooting for my beloved Redskins? Not at all.
That’s the one of the problems with defining how far the boundaries of racism go: Taking context and intent into account.
Counterintuitively, the broader parameters of racism and offensiveness found in journalistic circles actually lack nuance. Racism for them is a zero-tolerance issue. Anything related to the topic of race that might offend someone somewhere is just as off-limits as something even I would consider to be actual, vile racism.
The paramount virtue in that area has become sensitivity. We have Mike Wise saying that “white guilt” is really just another term for “human compassion.” I find that odd, because human compassion is a concept near and dear to my heart, and one that informs every decision I make. White guilt, on the other hand, has always been meaningless cultural baggage to me.
This philosophy of being as sensitive as possible may sound seductive, but there are a few problems. Chief among them: sensitivity is no substitute for intelligence. A lack of nuance can lead to absurdities, like this being equated with this, or a city official in (you guessed it!) Washington, D. C. famously being forced to resign because people didn’t know what “niggardly” meant.
What’s more notable is not the difference in notions of what constitutes racism, but why the more expansive conception has proliferated so much recently. Some would likely chalk it up to “progress,” but the truth is that being able to paint someone as a bigot is an effective (and intellectually lazy) argument-ender in most cases. Being able to play that card is a powerful feeling, and I understand on an intellectual level why people want to portray any view that isn’t theirs as evil, rather than merely reflective of a slightly different value hierarchy.
If someone wants to beef up border security, it’s much easier to dismiss that person as a racist than it is to explain why, in this age of terrorism risks and criminal activity in Mexico that regularly crosses into the U. S., more security isn’t a smart policy.
In the case of the Redskins, the critics think it’s an open-and-shut case: At least some Native Americans are offended. The team name literally references skin color, which will always make it nothing more than a slur in their eyes (and the eyes of all intelligent people, of course). Moreover, the founder of the franchise and the person who came up with the name, George Preston Marshall, was a known, virulent racist toward blacks. Therefore, the nickname could not possibly have been chosen out of admiration.
And, even if opponents would concede that the name was selected to honor Native Americans, that still isn’t satisfactory. In one of the McCartney pieces, he quoted Kevin Gover, the director of the American Indian Museum. Here’s the relevant excerpt:
That might be so, but it’s certainly become a problem today, according to Kevin Gover, director of the American Indian museum. “It’s stereotyping to use Indians that way. They’ll say, ‘Indians are brave, strong and steadfast.’ We want to say Indians are also smart and pious and generous. If you honor us only for those [other] qualities, then you’re basically saying that’s all we’ve got,” he said.
Emphasis mine. In other words, part of Gover’s argument is: If you’re spending time saying Native Americans are brave and strong, you’re not spending time saying they’re smart and generous and pious and beautiful and good knitters and excellent karaoke singers.
Put simply, it’s not just offensive to ascribe negative characteristics to Native Americans. It’s also offensive to say that Native Americans have positive qualities, because that means you aren’t saying they have other, non-traditional positive qualities.
From the media’s perspective, there is only one correct position. Always. End of story. Even applying scrutiny to such a position, as I’m foolishly doing here, is suspect. Nuance has no place in a context that is so cut-and-dry, after all.
The aforementioned Mike Wise, at that Racial Stereotypes and Cultural Appropriation in American Sports Symposium, reportedly remarked, “If one person is offended, we should all be offended.”
Well, that’s a bright-line rule if I’ve ever heard one. I’ll just say that it never ceases to amaze me how people supposedly educated in principles of free speech are among the least-committed to the concept.
What Happens Now?
Redskins owner Dan Snyder is steadfast in his refusal to change the team’s nickname, and I think he has most of the fanbase behind him. And maybe he’ll hold out long enough such that football itself disappears before the “Redskins” moniker has a chance to do so.
More likely, though, the media will continue along the arc of ridiculing supporters of the name. Truth be told, they’ll likely prevail. The progressives have been winning for a while now, and I don’t see that trend reversing itself anytime soon. Even if the public is on the side of the team, the NFL itself may eventually step in and take action against the Redskins if a braying media becomes too much of a distraction.
It’s the nature of our current climate. ESPN felt the need to issue that Webb-related apology in a situation where very, very few people outside of select college faculty lounges or a few trendy Brooklyn coffee shops cared. Certainly, many more people care about the Redskins’ logo and nickname.
I think the logo disappears eventually, as do all or most Native-American-related nicknames in sports generally (which is obviously already happening, thanks in no small measure to penalties imposed by the NCAA). I also think any mascots or logos that include a race-specific human will also begin to go extinct in time, on the grounds that they’re racist or at least “non-inclusive.” That will be the next logical frontier.
A common hypothetical foe propped up by a lot of the anti-“Redskins” authors above is the person who cries “this is just political correctness run wild!” This is sometimes just a convenient strawman argument used to underscore how much more intelligent and moral the author is than his opponents, but I don’t doubt that the anti-PC crowd does still exist in large numbers.
What people who cry “political correctness!” need to realize, though, is that that battle is over.
We all lost.
In the 1990s, calling someone “too PC” or “oversensitive” was clearly an insult. Being “politically correct” was a source of derision. Using well-crafted euphemisms in place of more efficient language and requesting that alternative terms be used for nearly every special interest group was laughed off by those who thought that such measures were silly and unnecessary.
But, now, the folks who were laughing a generation ago are the ones who are mocked. Simply put, there is no such thing as “political correctness” anymore. The script is officially flipped, and it has been for some time. As I said earlier, sensitivity is now the orthodoxy, and a deviation from that core belief will be chalked up as one of a host of argument-ending behaviors (racism, sexism, bullying, etc).
The worst thing any public figure can do in the twenty-first century is offend. Context and intent don’t matter—even if the person is making a valid point, hurting someone’s feelings, much less a group’s feelings, is inexcusable.
Although I’m in favor of keeping “Redskins,” in the final analysis, the fact that the name may one day change isn’t what troubles me. What troubles me is how comfortable we’ve become with the idea of one-sided discourse and chilling free speech.
People who have free speech concerns about our society in general shouldn’t be dismissed (even though they are). As those who want to see the United States move toward a European model in many respects continue to guide the narrative, reeling in the idea of “hate” speech is a part of that. And, yes, even something like sports mascots and nicknames are a small part of the receding commitment to free speech.
Back in September, we were still under the impression that a series of attacks on U. S. embassies in the Middle East were the result of Muslim outrage over a poorly-produced and inflammatory YouTube video. That’s when Eric Posner authored an article making the case that the United States overvalues free speech. I give Posner credit for being intellectually honest, even if I strongly disagree with his central premise.
Quietly, I think the idea of free speech being less important than not giving offense has become something of a consensus among the media and academia. Most troubling of all is that a belief in curtailing “hate speech” has gained support in tandem with an ever-expansive definition of “hate” (which now includes buying sandwiches at the wrong fast-food restaurant). That’s a dangerous combination from the perspective of those of us who are old-school liberals when it comes to freedom of speech.
In short, our willingness to silence “unacceptable” viewpoints has increased at the same time our definition of what is an unacceptable viewpoint has increased exponentially.
We need to push back against this. Hard.
To be clear: The world won’t end if the Redskins change their name. This is just a tiny fragment of a much larger, much more important cultural mosaic that seems to be crumbling at the edges.
If we were to hold up as our prevailing cultural ideal that no one should be offended by anything, suffice it to say that our society would look and function much, much differently. I say “worse,” perhaps Mike Wise would say “better.”
Maybe we’ll get there one day.
Until then, Hail to the Redskins.