Who Decides What's Offensive?

If you haven't heard, there has been a simmering controversy over the Washington Redskins name: some people believe it's offensive and needs to be changed, others believe it's a harmless tradition. 

An ESPN poll conducted in 2014 found that 24% of Americans believe the name is offensive and should be changed, so about 1 in 4. That number grew three-fold over the course of a year. 

But this is probably a somewhat average slice of the American public. So how do Native Americans feel? 

The only large-ish N poll (504 people) has been conducted by the Washington PostThey found that 9% of Native Americans are offended by the team's name, and that fewer than 20% would feel offended if a non-native called them a "redskin."

So this is a pretty surprising result; it's probably the case that many people outside the Native American community would assume that they'd find the name offensive. And of course, 9% do.

What's really interesting about this is it brings up a question: who decides what's offensive? Americans as a whole are almost three times as likely as Native Americans to find the term offensive, and it's a non-trivial number.

Does the public as a whole get to determine that something is offensive enough, by some consensus, to use popular pressure to get rid of a name?

Let's say the numbers were reversed: would Native Americans be the folks to ask about whether the name is offensive? Since an overwhelming majority don't find it offensive, should other Americans back off? Is it condescending to assume a word is offensive to a certain group, or does someone keep the "right" to find a word offensive even if it's not about them?

Might there be a more objective standard by which to determine whether a word or name for a group is acceptable or not? Is one offended or hurt person enough to demand a change?

Something to consider. Looking forward to your thoughts in comments.


Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.