19 June 2014

Political football

There's something absurd about the ruling made yesterday by the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office against the Washington Redskins football team. The PTO has stripped the club of trademark protection because the "Redskins" name and logo are considered disparaging by a significant number of Native Americans. To deny trademark protection, of course, is to encourage bootlegging. So to correct an offense against a group of people the PTO, using powers granted in the Trademark Act, has made it easier for the offensive name and symbols to proliferate. Unless the aggrieved Indians have legal recourse against bootleggers, the situation seems to be worse unless you assume that the social disapproval affirmed by the PTO ruling will deter anyone from making knockoffs of Redskins regalia. The point of the original complaint, I presume, is that the complainants don't want the name or logo used -- they don't want to be offended. But the PTO apparently can't tell anyone not to use an offensive name; they can only, in theory, deny the offender profits by refusing him trademark protection. Nor can legislators simply make "Redskins" a forbidden word, since that would somehow violate the First Amendment.

The situation was absurd already before Rush Limbaugh jumped into it. The radio talker blames the President of the United States directly for the Redskins' legal defeat. In Limbaugh's view, the PTO ruling is a tyrannical abuse of executive power, carried out for no other reason than to show that the President can punish a private business when he pleases for an offense against political correctness. Predictably, Limbaugh has long defended the Redskins. Native Americans' complaints boil down to "hurt feelings," and Limbaugh takes the libertarian view -- which isn't restricted to libertarians -- that no one else's freedom should be sacrificed to assuage anyone's hurt feelings. The Redskins controversy has been going on for some time, and different polls have shown Native Americans both offended by and indifferent to the controversial name. A poll cited in the PTO ruling found little more than 30% of Native respondents offended by "Redskins" -- but the PTO still found that number too large to be ignored.

Those who support the PTO ruling will insist on a distinction between the "hurt feelings" described by the likes of Limbaugh and the "disparagement" cited in the ruling. The claim here is that "disparagement" damages the standing of the disparaged group as a whole, as well as individual members, in civil society. Many non-Natives object to this idea because they assume that an activist minority of Natives choose to feel disparaged and use the perceived offense as an excuse to throw their weight around and impose their will on the national majority. You can understand the objection on a commonsense level: if you root for the Washington Redskins during the football season, it doesn't follow that you despise the people for whom the team is named. Many fans consider the current owner an incompetent leader, but this is no reflection on any Native people or culture. This leaves us at the usual impasse: what to do when you don't intend offense, but someone is offended. The knee-jerk reaction is to assume that the offended party doesn't understand your harmlessness; a worse reaction is to assume that he's simply trying to pick a fight. In either case, the offending party gets defensive and assumes that the offended party is the one who needs to change his mind, who has an obligation to understand you. The obligation never seems to be mutual, because the accused offender assumes that his lack of disparaging intentions sums up the objective reality of the case. This defensive mentality resists the "politically correct" implications of multiculturalism because they appear to oblige him to defer to an opinion -- the sense of offense -- he considers self-evidently wrong. That's why many people feel that to be politically correct is to live a lie -- that political correctness forces us to lie about life so that people's feelings aren't hurt. There are plenty of points to debate here, but the stakes aren't that high in the Redskins controversy. How would it be lying about life to defer, for once, to people who feel offended whether you mean it or not? There is no natural or positive law stating that Native Americans should not feel offended by the word "Redskins" when the word is not intended as an insult. Likewise, the archetypal (if not stereotypical) angry white male is probably more offended by trivial crap than any other group of people in the United States -- but he doesn't think the rest of us (disclosure: I'm not "angry") are free to ignore his protests. Like it or not, -- and no one will like it entirely --  in a pluralistic democracy like the United States, the imperative of mutual respect across cultural lines can't always be trumped by appeals to objective reality, because cultures, for good or ill, aren't based on objectivity. There are plenty of times when respecting other people's opinions, even if they don't seem rational, won't violate the integrity of republican government, much less anyone's self-respect. The Redskins controversy is one of those times.


hobbyfan said...

All this shows, Sammy, is that Limbaugh is a bandwagon-jumping weasel.

I wrote a while back that it is time for the Redskins name to be retired in favor of something less offensive, something that hasn't been used for a sports team in DC in years----the Senators. Agree or disagree?

Samuel Wilson said...

The new name would have to be a two-syllable word since the team apparently wants to retain its "Hail to the --" fight song and "Senators" wouldn't fit. As for Limbaugh, as you know the Redskins controversy has been going on for years and he's defended the name for quite a while by now.