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On Offensive Words, Part Two

June 19, 2014 5 comments

This is the second in a two-part post on offensive language. Each can be read independently of each other, but Part One can be found here.

The word redskin is a crazy word. I’ve never seen an etymological debate get so heated, so public, so emotional, or so misleading. I wrote over 800 words earlier today in an attempt to set the record straight when I reached a point in my post when I actually typed, “but none of what I’ve written so far matters.”  At that point, I deleted it and decided to focus on the parts that do matter. But first I just can’t help but share some reading and a quick opinion on the etymological stuff that’s going on, because I hate when two sides feel like they need to bend, stretch, or fabricate the truth in order to make their point–and there’s a lot of that in this case. You are certainly welcome to trust me, but I strongly encourage you to click on some of the links in the following paragraph.

First, the most thorough and definitive history of the use of the word redskin was written by Ives Goddard of the Smithsonian Institute. That study was the primary source used for this more-readable Slate article last December. These sources are specifically written to discredit claims by Suzan Harjo about the word redskin originating as a term for the scalps of dead Native Americans, but both admit a later evolution into a pejorative. The claim of scalp-origin was loudly repeated without substantiation in a bluntly-titled Esquire piece yesterday that relied primarily on oral history and followed up today with an attempt to verify his claims with this picture from 1863 that doesn’t actually prove the point he’s trying to prove (and comes far after the word’s origin). Meanwhile, the Redskins and their fans will tell you all about how the name must be accepted by all because of their Native American coach at the time of the naming in 1937, whose heritage was in such question that a court case attempting to determine his heritage actually ended in a hung jury… and created a pretty crazy story from his mom, too. It’s not hard to tell where I stand on the etymological debate. I think that the worst claims about the origin of the term redskin have never been adequately substantiated and have been, to me at least, adequately debunked. But remember, this is the point where I concluded that none of the above truly matters to the current debate. Word origins don’t mean much because language evolves, words take on new meanings, and public perceptions change–which has certainly happened in the case of the word redskin.

On the subject of public perception, a 2004 Annenberg Poll found that 90% of self-identified Native Americans did not find the team name Redskins to be offensive. Many criticize the findings because of the self-identification aspect, without differentiating at all who was living on a reservation or was more assimilated into mainstream culture and society. However, with such strong results and so little variation among subgroups, the results should be seen as at least somewhat reliable. These numbers line up fairly well with a 2002 Harvard/Sports Illustrated poll that found that 75% of Native Americans (and 62% living on reservations) did not find the name offensive. These numbers are certainly enough to give some pause to the people who feel that there is no need for discussion or debate and no argument against the viewing of redskin as an offensive slur. At the very least, in very recent history, the issue was less clear-cut. Or maybe I just resent a little bit any notion that there is no other side to an argument that has so much to do with emotion and perception.

But times have changed. A more recent poll, by The Center for Indigenous Peoples Studies at California State University, San Bernardino found that 67% of Native Americans agree that “the Redskins team name is a racial or racist word and symbol.” While the shift has been less profound among the general population (especially white people), the tide of public perception has clearly turned on this issue. While I fully accept this new reality and have long expected the team to change its name soon after losing their trademark, which I believe that they will even after appeal of today’s decision, I am intrigued by the cause of such a shift. And I fear that, as I stated in Offensive Words Part One, the primary driver very well might be that people are being told how to feel.

One way that people are being told how to feel, which is obvious to notice and just as obviously failing, is that fans of the team and defenders of the team name repeatedly will tell us that Native Americans should be honored by the team name. While it’s certainly true that people don’t name sports teams after cultures or animals they find embarrassing or disparaging, the intent behind the naming is simply not at issue here. The perception of the word and the feelings it evokes are at issue, and you can’t simply tell someone to be proud of something that offends them.

The other way people are being told how to feel, though, troubles me as well. I want to present a series of quotes:

I hate to tell you what would have happened if you had polled African Americans in 1900. Totally irrelevant, because Native Americans, just like Washingtonians like me, have grown up using the name. Their consciences haven’t anymore been raised than mine have been, until I heard what Native Americans were saying… Now, when they know that some of their brethren—who they were really talking about, and what it meant and the history of that name, and the brutal history, very gruesome history, I don’t think you have the same answer.

– D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, on the uselessness of a 10-year old poll

[Dr. Michael Friedman] claimed that even if Native Americans say the name is not offensive, they do not realize it is hurting their self-esteem.

“Even a positive image, if it’s stereotypical, will lead to psychological distress, lower self-esteem, lower sense of achievement,” Friedman said.

The Free Beacon in an interview with Native American Activists

Native American activists dismiss such opinion as misguided (“There are happy campers on every plantation,” says Suzan Harjo), or as evidence that Native Americans’ self-esteem has fallen so low that they don’t even know when they’re being insulted.

Sports Illustrated in an article interviewing several Native American activists

The common thread here is that some activists opposing the use of the word redskin believe that Native Americans are not offended by the term only because they lack knowledge or fail to understand why it should offend them. This notion, especially coming from Harjo who routinely states factually unsubstantiated claims about the word, strikes me as incredibly condescending toward the affected populations. And while the campaign to educate the population about the terrors associated with the word redskin is proving effective in changing public perception, something about that kind of attitude turns me off to the arguments. As I stated in Part One, I believe that the decision to find something offensive or not to find it offensive should be an individual one. These are examples of a population being almost belittled for not understanding why they should be offended by a word.

All of this leads me to wonder if perhaps this education does more harm than good. If, as has been asserted by Dr. Friedman above and the American Psychological Association, the word Redskin has a potentially “negative impact on the self-esteem of American Indian children,” is a greater awareness of the negative ways in which it was once used a healthy outcome or an improvement? I tend to believe that in almost all circles, the word redskin had all but lost its more problematic meaning and become simply associated with a sports team. It may have made the incredibly rare journey from a word that once offended and now was accepted, like queer (albeit under vastly different circumstances).  And if it had, is returning it to a word of hate and re-wrapping an ugly history of negative treatment toward Native Americans into a word the best outcome?

At this point, my questions can only be hypothetical. The damage is done. The tide is unlikely to turn again. Redskin has become, again, a dirty word. For some it always was. For others, they didn’t realize it ever had been. The Redskins will likely change their team name eventually. The delay will likely place them on the wrong side of history. It’s just a sports team name, after all. It isn’t worth offending so many people so badly. But I, for one, wonder if the price of reviving a polarizing word that had been all but forgotten by society at large (and apparently, 75-90% of Native Americans, too) will be worth the gain of changing the team name. I hope so.

My thoughts on this matter continue and are clarified in my first comment response below… if you’re interested in even more words on the subject.

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On Joe Paterno’s Statue and White-Washing History

July 24, 2012 1 comment

As you probably know, Penn State has decided to remove the statue of Joe Paterno in the wake of the results of the investigation into his role in the Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal. It had been concluded by former FBI director Louis Freeh that Paterno “could have stopped the abuse if he so wished,” and concealed information and may have talked administrators out of reporting a 2001 incident. Obviously, I am not here to defend Joe Paterno’s negligence in this case. More than enough has been written about the trial, the abuse, the football program, and the legacy of Joe Paterno, and I don’t feel the need to add to the chorus of outrage, though I feel it. I do, however, want to address the removal of the statue: specifically, that I think it is a mistake.

I could easily write about the great things Joe Paterno did to merit having a statue erected. I could argue that even horrible deeds cannot and do not undo his career. I could argue that Paterno had a reputation for doing things the right way at least in large part because he did so for most of his 60 years at Penn State. The merits or opinions of such arguments could be debated all day, and most seem likely to be trumped by “but he didn’t stop a child molester.”

But the removal of the statue is part of a larger trend to remove from history that which we find unpleasant or disagreeable. Like it or not, Joe Paterno is a major part of Penn State’s history, and I strongly doubt that he is the only memorialized figure who has later been discovered to have some nasty skeletons in his closet. We didn’t take down memorials to Thomas Jefferson when it was learned that he had an affair and second family with one of his slaves. Richard Nixon still has a presidential library. Numerous early settlers are thought to be heroes despite their slaughtering of native populations.

We still learn about these men in history books. We still can visit memorials to the men–to their good and to their bad. A statue of Joe Paterno is not an approval of his life and his deeds, but an acknowledgement of his significant role in the history of the university–and not just their football program. Penn State is looking to erase this stain from their history, as is the NCAA by vacating wins from 1998 on, in essence pretending those games didn’t really happen and weren’t really played.

To me, the statue would stand as a memorial toward caution: caution about idolizing public figures; caution about ceding too much power to a football coach; maybe even caution about enshrining the career of a man before his career has been completed. But regardless of what it stands for to those who choose to visit or view it, it stands for an accurate representation of history; a history that cannot be unwritten or re-written simply because facts have emerged that we wish weren’t true.

On the NFL and Labor Unions

May 7, 2012 1 comment

Before I cared so deeply about politics, I cared about the NFL. I studied Sports Business at the University of Georgia and unsuccessfully pursued employment with the NFL league office and a handful of teams for a couple of years. And though I didn’t get the jobs, I paid very close attention to the inner workings of the league (and wrote about it for an online message board that decided it wanted to expand to a source of original content). I don’t follow the NFL’s business side quite as closely as I used to, but I do still follow it and care about it. It is due to unfortunate circumstances now, though, that I feel that I can write some about the league without it seeming out of place in a blog such as this.

The NFL has not had its best week in the press. After the Saints’ bounty scandal, the league’s appeals process is coming under attack. More importantly, as suicides among disabled league retirees are publicized, the idea of a pay-to-injure scheme operating in the NFL at a time when the league faces over 50 different lawsuits made up of over 1,000 former players claiming that the league did not do enough to protect the players, a question is arising as to whether or not the league is capable of continuing on while keeping its players safe. Many people are calling for the league to do more to enhance player safety, reduce head injuries and take care of its retired players. However, as is astutely pointed out by Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk, the league has been making such efforts for at least three years now, and the fans and players have been the ones resisting.  To further that point, I would argue that the current state of the league’s retired players, lawsuits, head trauma, suspension-appeals process, and overall public relations nightmare falls mostly in the hands of the players’ union, the NFLPA.

This may sound like a “blame the victim” argument, and I’m not even talking about the standard line that “these players know the risks and now they face the consequences.” That, to me, is an effort to ignore what is a real problem. What I am arguing is that all of these issues are subject to collective bargaining and could have already been addressed. However, the NFLPA has been asking for all of the wrong things.

In 2006, the NFL and the NFLPA went through a round of labor negotiations. The result was a deal that was widely regarded as a huge win for the players and the head of the union, Gene Upshaw. The players managed to convince the league to expand the pool of shared revenue and to increase the percentage of that revenue pool that goes to the players. All of this came on the heels of a massive new television deal that had already increased the amount of money going toward both sides. Shortly following the deal, Upshaw was unanimously re-elected as the head of the union. At that time, in April of 2007, I wrote that he should not have been re-elected due to numerous missed opportunities of the bargaining process. Included in those missed opportunities, I listed increased medical care for retirees and addressing the issue of head traumas, as well as a number of contractual issues. I also predicted an increasing divide between the players and management due to some of those issues.

You see, each of these objects is a bargaining chip. While the union put all of its chips into increased salary expenditures for the current players with a focus on the short term, it necessarily played those chips instead of diverting money elsewhere, into the longer-term goals. And while the NFL has (and is actively working on) an obligation to its players, it has finite resources, and that obligation to the players is bargained for on every level.  The players–or at least their union leadership–chose salary increases over any other such gain.

When the NFL and the NFLPA, both under new leadership, underwent their more recent and uglier round of labor negotiations in 2010-2011 much rhetoric was given to other issues, but the crux of the negotiations again boiled down to player salaries and the percentage of revenue pools, with minimal gains for retired players and very few structural changes to issues about which the players routinely complain. If I were to write a “missed opportunities” article this time around, I would have pointed out the NFL commissioner’s role as both punisher and the sole course of appeal for most disciplinary issues among the top issues. And yet, that system was maintained by the collective bargaining process, and now is likely to face legal challenges.

Twice, in 2006 and again in 2011, the NFLPA had the opportunity to sacrifice gains in current salaries in exchange for resolution on issues that now plague the league. (Note that I am not even saying the NFLPA should accept lower salaries to get these options, but simply accept smaller increases.) Twice, the union chose instead to push for more money now and less help later. So now, the league is coming under fire and the very industry through which these union members make their living may begin to decline thanks in no small part to priority decisions made by the NFLPA.

To me, this is indicative of the state of labor unions as a whole. I recently read “Take This Job and Ship It,” by Senator Byron Dorgan. In it, the fight for labor rights in this country is detailed. I was surprised to learn that using the phrase “fight for labor rights” is so literal. This was not a fight that was fought in academia or on the floor of Congress. There were riots; there was bloodshed. The fight against the most powerful was incredibly difficult and dragged out. And very few honest historians or economists would argue the fact that the rise of labor unions played a major role in building and sustaining a strong middle class and the level of consumerism needed to fuel strong growth in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

And yet, today, labor unions are on the decline and many Republican legislatures are attempting to reduce bargaining rights. Labor unions are blamed for everything from the state of education to the decline of the American auto industry. But the right to collectively bargain itself and to form labor unions should not be under attack. I would imagine that if the rounds of negotiations that take place in the auto industries or the public sector were examined as I have examined the NFL negotiations, it would not be difficult to pick out specific choices that were made by the unions that helped contribute to long-term negative outcomes.

Labor unions served such an important role in the building of the modern version of our nation, and could continue to serve an important role as we move forward. But if labor unions continue to prioritize short-term gains over the long-term health of the industry in which their members work, their role will continue to diminish and their popularity wane. Much like in the case of the NFL, it’s not necessarily that the country needs fewer unions; it’s that the country needs better union leadership with smarter priorities.