Thin Skins

Today the Washington Redskins are visiting the Seattle Seahawks for an NFL playoff game. The contest has been attended with the usual hype, but the sportswriters covering the game for the Seattle Times have faced a peculiar challenge – the paper has decided not to allow them to use the name “Redskins” more than once in their stories. The difficulty is compounded by the fact that the only other obvious token by which to refer to the team is the name of their hometown, Washington, which happens also to be the the home state of the home team.

I do understand the wish not to offend, but let’s face it, the team has a name, and expecting humble scriveners who are merely trying to report the news not to use it seems awfully weak to me. It’s not as if people don’t know what the team’s name is, after all, especially if it has been leaked exactly once per story.

This is “euphemism creep”: a social-engineering effort to ameliorate perceived instances of societal stigmatization simply by replacing old, freighted terms with new, officially-approved ones. “Crippled” becomes “disabled”, then “differently abled”. “Niggers” became “Negroes”, then “colored persons”, then “Blacks”, then “African-Americans”, then “persons of color”. Think about that – you can in perfectly P.C. good taste refer to someone as a “person of color”, but to say “colored person” these days would cost you your tenure.

I mention all of this not to belittle the sufferings of those who are unjustly discriminated against, but to point out that this does very little, if anything at all, to solve their problem, as is indicated by the very fact that the euphemisms have to be replaced every so often with new ones. As long as the underlying attitudes remain, each new term simply acquires the same social baggage the previous one had. Metaphorically it reminds me of the geology of the Hawaiian Island chain; the row of islands was formed one after the other as the Earth’s crust moved over a stationary volcanic “hot spot”.

My point is that until the underlying attitude changes, all we are doing is kidding ourselves. This is such a sensitive issue, though, that even to mention it in a humble blog post is to ask for trouble.


  1. Robert says

    You won’t get any trouble from me, for merely telling the truth. That’s the nub, and the rub, of this whole silly kerfuffle; the idea that by not saying something’s name, we can make it go away. That’s the magical thinking of our ancestors of, say, 5000 years ago. I had thought we had concluded that it didn’t work long before you and I were born.

    Posted January 16, 2006 at 12:20 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Thanks Robert,

    Quite right – I should have thought we might have outgrown this sort of thing by now.

    Sorry to be going so slowly in our chess game, by the way – it’s got to a tricky spot, and I’ve been awfully busy. I’ll move shortly.

    Posted January 16, 2006 at 11:12 am | Permalink
  3. Robert says

    No problem with the chess game. Take all the time you need. It’s an interesting position.

    Posted January 16, 2006 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

3 Trackbacks

  1. By waka waka waka » Blog Archive » None Too Civil on February 6, 2006 at 12:23 am

    […] The irony is that his organization is by its very name dedicated to the “advancement” of “colored people” (I discuss a related irony regarding that name here), yet Mr. Bond chooses to use an inflammatory racial slur to denigrate, if you will pardon the expression, two of the most “advanced” colored people in the nation, people who are respected and admired, yes, because they achieved much at a time when the cards were stacked against them, but mainly because of their outstanding character and capability. […]

  2. […] If you are familiar with O’Rourke’s political stance – libertarian conservative, with distilled spirits and cigar – and his rebarbative writing style, which might be described as Dave Barry meets Mark Twain meets Don Rickles, then you can imagine what a O’Rourke review of an instruction manual for politically correct academic discourse (a topic I briefly touched upon here) might look like, and you won’t be disappointed. Here’s an excerpt from the opening paragraph: […]

  3. […] There are varying degrees of virulence with which this infectious meme may occur. In the USA it expresses itself in relatively mild forms such as affirmative action and “euphemism creep“, but at various times and places — such as in the catastrophic Communist experiments in Russia and China, and in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge — it has ravaged entire civilizations, at the cost of millions of lives. […]

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