Steve Chapman

As a general rule, the names of professional sports teams, and their connotations, are of little concern. No one cares that the Chicago White Sox don't wear white socks, or that Utah, where the NBA's Jazz are based, is the last place you'd think of when you think of jazz.

But the Washington Redskins are different. Their name is a big deal. A group of Native Americans is pursuing a suit to strip the name of federal trademark protection. A few publications have stopped using the term in stories about the team.

In May, 10 members of Congress wrote team owner Dan Snyder asking him to find a new name. Snyder, however, says that will "never" happen.

Plenty of commentators have expended plenty of words arguing for and against the idea. If I were Snyder, I'd have replaced "Redskins" a long time ago. But what the team, the NFL, the courts or Congress ought to do is not the only question. Another one is: Why does it matter so much?

The difference of opinion is not a mere matter of habit or upbringing, like "you like tomato, I like tomahto." It's not a matter of taste, like preferring green to purple. It goes to fundamental beliefs and values.

For insights on the subject, I emailed Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist, professor at New York University and author of the 2012 book "The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion."

He has argued that there are several "clusters of moral concerns" that affect how people think about issues. What distinguishes liberals is that they place great value on fairness, liberty and compassion -- to the exclusion of the other factors. Conservatives don't reject the liberal values, says Haidt, but they give equal or more weight to fostering loyalty, upholding authority and respecting the sacred.

How do all these motives color the debate over the Redskins' name? For the most part, Haidt thinks the issue splits Americans along familiar ideological lines.

"The left tends to value compassion particularly highly," he told me, especially when it concerns the victims of oppression. Not surprisingly, liberals perceive the name as a racial slur against Native Americans, one of the most ruthlessly abused groups in American history. The members of Congress said in their letter that the term is "a racial, derogatory slur akin to the 'N' word among African-Americans."

By that reasoning, nothing could justify its use as a team name. Expressions of racism, however familiar or fondly cherished, have no place in society. Non-Indians have no business telling Indians they should accept something they find degrading.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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