The Politics of Niceness

Daniel SnyderJonathan Bernstein made a great point over at his blog about the naming of the Washington Redskins, The Question Is Etiquette, Not “Racism.” The title says it all: it doesn’t matter whether or how the term “redskin” is offensive, if our native American brothers and sisters don’t like the term, we shouldn’t use it. After all, as a group, have they not suffered enough? The United States government committed a genocide against them. Not naming mascots after culturally offensive stereotypes sounds like the least we could do.

Bernstein brings up another point that we may refer to as, “Why does mom get to call you that?” This is in reference to situations like that where my mother calls me Frankie, but I prefer to be called Frank. Why does my mother get to call me that but not you? I don’t know and I don’t have to provide you with an answer. It’s just the way it is. If you call me Frankie, it’s not going to kill me. But it does mean that you’re an asshole. (For the record, it is fine to call me Frankie, although those so inclined make my name cuter tend to go with Frannie.)

He doesn’t mention it, but he’s clearly talking about the surprisingly common conservative lament that African Americans can use the word “nigger” but whites can’t. (I actually think that the words that they use is “nigga,” which is a different, although derivative word.) This has always struck me as a bizarre complaint. Do such people think they are missing out by not being able to use that word? I dare say most of these people go their whole lives without the more useful “pulchritude” and never seem to miss it. But the more important point is that I’m sure that any African American would be willing to trade use of the word for just a fraction of the privilege that whites have in this country.

This all follows the announcement by Slate that it will no longer refer to the Washington team by “Redskins.” This is just a change in their style guide, but such changes are important. (Grammar is important!) After all, newspapers changed their style guides in the 1960s to remove “negro” and “colored.” So this stuff really does matter and it really does make a difference. This is all part of the fight against the offensive name and the bigger the battlefield gets, the more likely the name will change. And eventually, the name will change, if only because Daniel Snyder dies or sells the team. (Note: I’m sure he doesn’t see himself this way, but Daniel Snyder is an asshole and likely a bigot as well.)

Bernstein’s insight is an important one. Most of what is important in life is just about acting like a decent human being. Perhaps the biggest argument against libertarianism is simply that all its talk of marginal increases in freedom (an abstract concept under most circumstances) is nonsense in comparison to the needs of people who are literally starving thanks to a system that may tend to maximize freedom but doesn’t come close to fairness. So maybe we should all just treat each other with the dignity that all humans deserve. Of course, that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop calling out people like Daniel Snyder for the assholes they are.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

2 thoughts on “The Politics of Niceness

  1. The thing is, people who want to to defend their use of racist slurs always claim not to be racists themselves. This is almost always untrue, and besides the point. I’ve been making the argument for eliminating offensive words from polite conversation based on common courtesy for years.

    And it’s not Orwellian thought control, the way in the 90’s that it was attacked. You are free to use any slur you wish. (You’ll have to face the consequences, like a punch in the face or a firing from your HR department, but you won’t go to prison.) What you can’t do is use slurs when others have specifically asked you not to and pretend you meant nothing by it. That’s bully/coward behavior, like calling a kid "gaywad" and then, when caught, saying "it’s all in fun."

    If Snyder wants to mock the sad legacy of natives, and if the NFL wants to join him, then by all means let them keep their ridiculous team name. (And baseball’s Cleveland Indians their horrible logo.) As Dave Zirin has pointed out, that’s how those things were intended originally. Those who today say these are respectful shoutouts to a proud people are missing the history. Imagine if the Nazis had won the war and there was a soccer team in Hamburg named the "Clever Jews." "Honoring" natives with stupid names and Sambo logos is the definition of a backhanded compliment.

    Calling Snyder an asshole is different; it’s meant to insult him. By doing so, you accept the consequences; it’s likely Snyder will never give you a job or buy you a goldfish. You’re not pretending its polite.

    This reminds me of Thomas Frank’s observation about modern conservatism — that the difference between their "dish it out" and their "take it" is truly staggering. If Rush or O’Reilley make some racist comment and get called on it, they cry about over-sensitivity; they aren’t meaning to be harmful, you see. If anyone criticizes a fundamentalist Christian law as being wrong, or Sarah Palin as being an idiot, the right wing gets all up in arms. How disrespectful; what a double standard!

    It’s not a double standard. Critics of the right wing tend to mean exactly what they say. Offensive right-wing language is meant to say what it says but pass for something else. Rush isn’t racist; vouchers aren’t an attack on public education. Etc, etc, ad nauseum.

  2. @JMF – I think that’s exactly right. And notice how the country is something like 80% Christian and yet there is a war on this poor oppressed minority. I actually just wrote about this last night: [url=http://franklycurious.com/index.php?itemid=5914]Outrage Addiction[/url].

    As for Snyder: he claims it is all about business and branding. But the man is a billionaire. And the team is going to make piles of cash regardless. And it serves an area that is majority minority. It will change, but he’ll still be an asshole.

    I’m really bummed that he’ll never buy me a goldfish…

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