Saturday, May 21, 2016

The "R-word": What makes a slur?

The ongoing debate about the name of the Washington, D.C. professional football team raises in my mind the question of what makes a word a slur or an epithet. In my view, the terms "slur" and "epithet" should be reserved for a word or phrase that, on its face, expresses disapproval of the group referenced. The user's animus is therefore expressed in his or her use of the term, so the mere use of a slur can have the power to wound. Failure to restrict the label of "slur" to the instances in which it reasonably applies runs the risk of diminishing the significance of verbal conduct that is truly harmful. If everything is a slur, then nothing is a slur.

It seems to me, then, that in order to constitute a slur, a term has to be offensive to at least a decent proportion of the group referenced -- here, Native Americans. Plus, most individuals outside that group -- here, non-Native Americans -- have to know that many members of the group referenced find the term offensive. Given a new Washington Post poll finding that 90% of Native Americans are not bothered by the Washington Redskins' team name, the characterization of the term "redskins" as a slur is dubious. The findings of the Washington Post poll are consistent with a poll conducted in 2004 by the Annenberg Center. Oddly, in this case, it may be non-Native Americans' misperception of Native Americans' perception that has driven the mischaracterization of "redskins" as a slur.

That does not end the matter, however, because whether a term is a slur is not the only reason for rejecting its use in a particular context.  A term might have undesirable connotations even if it is not a slur. The term "homosexual" is not a slur, but alternatives like "gay," "lesbian," or "LGBT" suggest respect for members of those groups. It is also generally better not to give offense when that can be easily avoided, regardless of the reason for the potential offense. The word "niggardly," which means stingy, has its origins in a Middle English word with the same meaning. While unrelated to the racial epithet to which it bears a strong resemblance, the word "niggardly" might be a poor choice in many contexts.

While it seems hard to dispute that the term "redskins" cannot reasonably be characterized as a slur, there might be other reasons for deeming its use inappropriate in certain contexts, such as the origins of the term, even if that is disputed. For a similar reason, the term "handicapped" has been replaced in most contexts by the term "disabled," based in part on the origins of the former.

Thus, while the Washington Post poll may not settle the issue of whether "redskins" is an appropriate name for a football team, it should help focus the debate on potentially meritorious arguments rather than the now-discredited perception of the term as a slur.

This blog reflects the views solely of its author. It is not intended, and should not be regarded, as legal advice on how to analyze any particular set of facts.