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It’s not the thing itself, but what we name it, and when, and why, that can bring blood to the eye … or the nose.

images-2In the Beginning, there were no swear words, only The Word, and The Word was God. Since then, it’s mostly downhill, though, in its tumble, bad language hasn’t just grown like a giant, profane snowball. Some words and expressions have fallen out of favor, some have fallen in. Depends on where you are, when you are, who you are, and and who you’re talkin’ to.

Fifty years ago, son of a bitch wasn’t the worst thing you could say, unless, like me, you were a ten-year-old, yelling it jokingly through a basement window at a departing friend just as your father appeared at the top of the stairs. Time hasn’t changed its standing much. It’s still slightly malodorous, but, shit, we all use it.

Interestingly, son of a bitch’s source-word, bitch, has gone way up on the fever chart. If I, now an adult, were to yell, So long, Mary, you bitch, just as I yelled, So long, Lefty, you son of a bitch many years ago, I would face consequences far more serious than what my father wrought on me. The passage of time, and an altered political climate, probably account for the change.

When males are in power, calling each other sons of bitches is just horsing around and calling a woman a bitch, though not nice, usually has only personal consequences. But, when women are demanding, and getting, a share of power, calling a woman a bitch is not just a personal slight, it’s a political act, an expression of imagined superiority, and an especially stupid one if it misreads the real power equation involved.

If women are to make real political gains, they’ve got to curb the use of a term that implies inferiority and weakness. Even if a term was never intended as hostile — like Miss or Mrs. — if it suggests unacceptable assumptions, they’ve got to make it UNACCEPTABLE.

African-Americans have been successful at this. When I was a kid, the term Colored was on its way out, its hue changing from polite to patronizing. It was replaced by Negro, which was ok until it was not ok, and African-American or black or black American moved in. Persons of good-will accommodated, though with some confusion and more than a little paternalistic grumbling, since blacks (African-Americans?) themselves rather than white liberals were leading this particular campaign.

(As a thought experiment about words and political power, compare the nastiest, but still weak-kneed, terms in common usage for the sons of the Mayflower or the Daughters of the American Revolution — Whitey? The Man? Anglo? — and compare them to what minorities and more recent immigrants get called.  Give me a fuckin’ break!)

Which brings us to the question of Native Americans, and the RedskinsUnknown-2 nickname for Washington’s NFL team. I don’t think the name was chosen to demean Native Americans. Probably quite the opposite, to symbolize strength, courage, endurance. (From other domains, we have Lions, Tigers, and Bears, but no Mice, Ants, or Voles.)

But, like Miss or Mrs. or Negro, benign intent is irrelevant. If Native Americans can muster the political firepower (and only they have standing to sue), then their saying the term is unacceptable means it is UNACCEPTABLE.

Getting rid of the Redskins nickname won’t solve Native Americans’ profound social and economic problems. Only a fair share of political power can offer that hope. But winning the nickname battle would be an important step.

Interestingly, if Native Americans can succeed against so formidable a foe, they will have shown precisely the strength, courage, and endurance that made them such attractive team symbols in the first place. But there can be no going back. Washington’s NFL team will have to look elsewhere for its Unknown-3symbolism. Considering the team’s obstinate endurance in the face of continuing failure, the answer is right in their own back yard: The Senators.