Washington’s football team is back in the news: an appeals board of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office canceled its trademark on the name “Redskins.”

I can’t comment on the legal issues. The basic case, however, is that those handling this as a political matter are making a category mistake. As I’ve said before, this is a question of etiquette: the polite thing to do is to call people what they ask to be called, and to avoid using names people don’t want to be called.

Or as I like to put it: if my brother doesn’t want to be called Eddie Baby, people shouldn’t call him Eddie Baby.

Granted, specific cases can get complicated. If my brother wants to be called Sir Edward (despite not being knighted) … well, it’s tricky to decide whether he should be indulged. If he’s “Ed” this week and “Teddy” next week, at some point, he will tax our patience. To get away from the Python references and back to football, in a group context where individuals within the group disagree on what they want to be called, all everyone else can do (again, if we’re trying to follow proper etiquette) is to try our best.

With the Redskins it’s an easy call, however. Although the Washington football team has always managed to find a few Native Americans who support the name, it’s a lot easier to find people who are offended by it. If this were a political question, we would think about majorities and rights and such. If this were a logic question, we could dive into the etymology and the history. But as a matter of etiquette, it’s simple: Avoid the word that offends people.

Sure, etiquette sometimes can be trumped by other, more important considerations. And it shouldn’t control the law. It should, however, guide our actions in this case. So forget about questions of racism, which are highly complex and divisive. This is an easily settled matter of etiquette.

[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.