These days when the National Football League isn’t dealing with the latest player to be accused of hitting their wife/girlfriend/child, they have to deal with another big issue; the nickname of the football in team in Washington, DC. The fight to have the name changed , has waxed and waned over the years and now is one of those times when it is high in the social consciousness.
Now, I do think there is no good reason to keeping the name. Even if it wasn’t meant to make fun of Native Americans, it is being perceived that way now and should be changed.
But even though I support changing the name, I find myself more and more uncomfortable by the rhetoric coming from “my” side. It seems as if being on the “right side of history” ( a term that I am increasingly uncomfortable with), gives folks the right to be as boorish to others as they so desire. How I’ve seen people acting in regards to the Redskins reminds me how degraded public discourse has become in our society and how much emphasis we place on symbols as opposed to actually doing anything of substance.
The most recent tale involving the football team involved a number of fans being interviewed by the Daily Show. The fans were told that they were going to be on the show to defend the right to use the Redskins name. When asked if they would have to confront Native Americans during the interview, the crew said no. And so the interview begins and the fans are confronted by Native Americans.
Now, leave aside the stupidity of the fans in thinking the Daily Show was not going to skewer them, there’s something a little mean-spirited about this. Yes, the Native Americans have a right to be aggreived, but it just doesn’t seem fair to gang up on a bunch of people and lifting them up for public ridicule.
Of course there are those who think otherwise. They believe anyone that defends the name is an active racist. I remember talking with a theologian about this a few months ago. I tried to tell him that most of these people aren’t trying to offend Native Americans. His response was basically that he viewed anyone as suspect if they supported the nickname.
We live in a time when we view the other, the person we disagree with not simply as wrong or mistaken, but as evil, as something that is foul and not deserving of decency. I think the fans and Dan Synder, the owner of the team are wrong in their support of the nickname. But I don’t see them as somehow evil or not worthy of respect. And I don’t see how such attitudes would actually make a difference in getting Synder to change the name. It seems to have made him dig in his heels more, not less.
What has been sorely missed in this debate is any notion of civility. I know that some will roll their eyes and think that I am talking about “being nice.” That’s not what I’m talking about. What I am talking about is how to talk about sensitive issues with a bit more grace and less condescension.
Civility in this context would include two things: actually listening to other side, even if we think they are wrong and then with explaining your position with calm and humility.
Listening to the other side would mean understanding that the Redskins name has meant something to the fans and the team over the last 80 years. For many, it didn’t mean intentionally dishonoring Native Americans, but it meant going to the old RFK stadium and cheering on the team, especially during the years when they went to the Superbowl. This isn’t a reason to keep the name, but it does show how important the name was to many folks in the Washington, DC metro area over the decades.
About a year ago, Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote a piece about the controversy that has been the “gold standard” on how to deal with this issue and how to keep it in perspective. He explained why the name should be changed without resorting to mocking the other side. His column is a reminder that things aren’t so black and white on this issue. He explains why he thinks the Redskins should adopt a new name:
I don’t like being lectured by sportscasters about ethnic sensitivity. Or advised by the president of the United States about changing team names. Or blackmailed by tribal leaders playing the race card.
I don’t like the language police ensuring that no one anywhere gives offense to anyone about anything. And I fully credit the claim of Redskins owner Dan Snyder and many passionate fans that they intend no malice or prejudice and that “Redskins” has a proud 80-year history they wish to maintain.
The fact is, however, that words don’t stand still. They evolve.
Krauthammer makes his case without resorting to name calling or coersion. I remember when I first read it I was convinced of his argument because it was presented taking into account the humanity of the other side.
As Krauthammer notes, this is an important issue- but it isn’t the Cuban Missal Crisis or Brown v. Board of Education. Let’s learn to act accordingly.