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OpinionColumnistsLane Filler

Demands to change team name not "political correctness"

Signs for the Washington Redskins are displayed outside

Signs for the Washington Redskins are displayed outside FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland, on Monday Credit: AP/Susan Walsh

It’s becoming increasingly clear, as people hurl the charge of political correctness around, that many folks don’t know what political correctness is, and why it matters.

Many don’t even seem to know what politics is.

Wanting to continue using derogatory terms like Redskins without catching any guff, because you’ve always been able to, is not a political philosophy. Thus bringing financial or social pressure into play to push you to stop doing so is not political correctness.

Last week, President Donald Trump showed his confusion over the issue when he tweeted, “They name teams out of STRENGTH, not weakness, but now the Washington Redskins & Cleveland Indians, two fabled sports franchises, look like they are going to be changing their names in order to be politically correct.”

But what political philosophy are Trump and millions of Americans who agree with him defending? Wanting the team to remain the Redskins rather than being called the Warriors or Red Tails or Doormats so that a collection of fan gear can remain relevant is not a political theory anyone has been able to lay out. Neither is a desire to call the team what your granddad did.

It’s just a preference.

The question of whether the term Redskins is derogatory was answered pretty definitively as early as 1898, when the Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, that hotbed of revolutionary semantics, noted the term was “often contemptuous.” The fact that not all native Americans object to the name, and fans say it with affection (at least early in the season, before the losses pile up), does not change that. 

But in America people are allowed to use racially hateful terms, though fans and bettors screaming as they root for or even against the Redskins clearly don’t. Either way, it has nothing to do with the concept of censoring unpopular political ideas.

The Redskins have announced the team will change its name after sponsors including FedEx, which has a $205 million naming deal for the team stadium, asked them to, and because money talks. “Money talks” is a political philosophy, and those of us whose bank accounts can barely muster a whisper may oppose it, but that’s a different debate.

These distinctions matter not because the charge that political correctness is ruining our discourse is trivial, but because it’s important, and deploying it in arguments over beloved racial slurs trivializes it.

Imagine I wrote in a column that the real reason women earn 82 cents for every dollar men make is not sexism but the fact that they’re so often saddled with childcare that makes them leave work earlier than men, and because their careers are often interrupted by maternity leave. And let’s say I argued that these are not issues employers or the government should address, because women are free not to have kids, and free not to have them alone or with men who won’t help care for them equally.

That would not be a great column, but it would be a defense of a political philosophy unpopular with the mainstream left, of prioritizing individual and property rights over regulation.

And insisting it be taken down, or that I be fired, would be an example of people demanding political correctness. A meaningful debate could ensue, over the merits of regulation, and about what ideas deserve to be publicized.

Such discussions are vitally important. That’s why conjoining them with arguments over whether we should keep using racial slurs when the only justification for it is a long history of using racial slurs is a political play that’s about as incorrect as they come.

Lane Filler is a member of Newsday's editorial board.