James Giago Davies: Why the R-word controversy won't die

James Giago Davies

Why the Redskins controversy won’t die
Back in the news cycle yet again
By James Giago Davies
Iyeska Journal

There is one issue in Indian Country guaranteed to inflame passions that bridges the gap between sports and social activism—a football team called the Washington Redskins—and the simple logical truth at the core of that controversy fails to register on either side and is seldom expressed in the media.

Because we live in an anti-intellectual country obsessed with sport and celebrity, even when we read astute arguments that would enlighten our understanding of this issue, our Pavlovian preference for rationalizing over reasoning, clouds our judgment, and we can never make clear to ourselves, let alone to other people, why we feel the way we do.

Stop right there. Let’s break that paragraph down, point by point, to the very simple: “we live in an anti-intellectual country obsessed with sport and celebrity.” We see athletes, musicians and actors as extremely important people, and we obsess over their activities, and we then take their values and identity and force them on our politicians and public figures. That is how society is dumbed down. Washington becomes “Hollywood for ugly people,” Creationism becomes hard science for superstitious people.

We can identify with and comprehend the gifts of talented people, but not the smarts of a genius, so beyond the technology which gives us electricity and medicine and cell phones, we dismiss his ideas as having no practical value. That is why James Madison, elected in 1808, was our last genuinely intellectual president, and even his socialite wife, Dolly, is more famous than he is, at least she has some snacks named after her.

Next point: “...our Pavlovian preference for rationalizing over reasoning, clouds our judgment...” Pavlov was a Russian physiologist and he had these dogs, he would ring a bell, and then feed them, later he would just ring a bell, and they would salivate in anticipation of food. People can be similarly conditioned to respond with a preferred mentality, in this case rationalizing over reasoning. Most of us rationalize part of the time, but many of us can rationalize all the time.

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We never really have to reason, because everyday reality has been dumbed down so rationalizing is rewarded, and reasoning, punished. That is the Pavlovian conditioning. For most intents and purposes, rationalizing works exactly like reasoning, but when talk ventures beyond people or events, and we actually discuss ideas, these ideas can be unsettling; they often threaten important things we have already decided must be true. However deluded our ideas, we can rationalize them over reality, and continue believing exactly what we want to.

These are the reasons both sides of the Washington Redskins argument tend to get it wrong. One side argues that naming a sports team after Indians for any reason is demeaning to Indians, and is solely intended to mock and marginalize, but that is not reasoning, it is rationalizing.

If the sole intent were to demean Indians, then why aren’t teams named the Chinks or the Niggers, why just the Redskins? They are equally demeaning racial epithets, aren’t they? We don’t call teams the Washington Weaklings or the Capitol Cowards. Teams are named after positive symbols, not negative ones.

The other side argues sports teams intend to honor Indians by naming sports teams after them, but that is not reasoning that is rationalizing. They want to keep the name of the team as is, for reasons of tradition, a tradition established at a time when you could use openly racist epithets and it was socially acceptable. Calling the team the Redskins worked at the time because Redskins conjured up images of fierce warriors, but the intent was never to honor Indians.

Were that the intent, if Indians really were something so honored and respected you would name a team after them solely for that reason, then present day Indian objections to having a team named Redskins would be just as honored and respected, and the name change to something less offensive to aboriginal Americans would have happened a half century ago, when the first serious objections to the team name made the national media.

Zema Williams, also known as "Chief Zee," with a faux headdress and a faux tomahawk. Photo by Katidid213 / Wikipedia

But the Washington Redskins were not called Redskins to honor Indians at all, but to honor the team, to honor themselves. The ownership, and most of the fans, could hardly give a rip what actual Indians think or feel, because all that matters is the romanticized historical image of what an Indian warrior is, and not the actual humanity of and dignity of any Indians still alive and kicking.

In our anti-intellectual country the arguments of both sides have been dumbed down. Calling a team the Indians, Braves or Chiefs is not demeaning, calling them Redskins is. Just like calling a team the Giants or Fighting Irish is not demeaning, but calling them the Midgets or Violent Micks is demeaning.

The idea that naming sports teams after some Indian related term is automatically demeaning to Indians is classic rationalizing fronting as reasoned thinking. It is only demeaning if the term is demeaning, like Redskins, otherwise the intrusive policing of such names becomes far worse than any negative social implications possibly reinforcing demeaning stereotypes.

When you couple that, with the utterly asinine idea that you can persist in calling a team the Redskins when no argument can be made it is anything but a racist epithet, you get exactly what you would expect in an anti-intellectual country, where both sides of any argument are no longer capable of responding to controversy in a reasoned, respectful manner.

(James Giago Davies can be reached at skindiesel@msn.com)

(Editor’s note: Native Sun News usually eschews the use of “Redskins” in our newspaper and instead breaks it down to the R-Word. But for the use of the word in this column it is allowed for clarity’s sake.)

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