The NAME GAME

While the Yale football team is not famous for exhibiting great sophistication (see The GAME), another game is being cultivated to the highest perfection at Yale:

The NAME GAME

I have already talked about WALL WARS, Halloween costume scandals, and the perpetual fight for YALEQUALITY. What I haven’t told you is how these debates tend to end. Most fights about intramural justice, fought in the register of inclusion through exclusion, culminate in naming decisions:

How to name new residential colleges? How to label bathrooms (as “men’s”, “women’s” or “gender neutral”)? How to refer to certain college officials? What to print on dollar bills? You should thus expect and prepare yourselves for naming decisions being the epitome of political decisions at Yale.

These recent weeks have seen a new climax of the NAME GAME.

All started with the new 20-dollar-bill being equipped with a portrait of Harriet Tubman, a 19th century Afro-American abolitionist. Although I’m not generally opposed to symbols as a means of political controversy (some people will say that all politics revolve around common meaning and symbols), it tastes somewhat stale to see the fight for more equality being muted by merely symbolic measures. The impression that emancipatory movements are not being taken very seriously is confirmed when one looks more closely at these kinds of decisions: They follow the clearly discernable pattern of trying to appease as many discontent voices as possible by a single decision. Like the “Brave Little Tailor” who slays seven flies “at one blow” Harriet Tubman conveniently covers both, the interests of the Black Community and the women’s rights movement.

This principle is being followed even more ingeniously by the recent decision to name one of Yale’s two new residential colleges after Pauli Murray, a black, queer woman who played an important role in the civil rights movement. Having thus “at a single blow” absolved itself from the moral demands of three persistent disadvantaged identity groups, the University felt entitled to simultaneously settle (negatively) the long disputed issue of renaming “Calhoun College” (named after a glowing 19th century anti-abolitionist and a symbol of the Confederacy) and name the other new residential college after Benjamin Franklin. With this latter decision, the University administration acquiesced to the request of the donor whose 250 million dollar donation (yes, you read correctly) had enabled the construction of the two new residential colleges.

But “Seven at one blow” are clearly not enough. The University administration’s unsurpassed sophistication in playing the NAME GAME becomes even more complete by another decision that was taken last week: The Black Community’s call to officially abandon the honorary title of “master” for the non-academic heads of the residential colleges (for one provocative position in the fight see http://yaledailynews.com/blog/2015/08/28/our-honorable-masters/) was finally heard.

Nevertheless, the discontent over the University’s stand on “Calhoun College” prompted another emotional town hall meeting of the student body. The absurdity of the never ending NAME GAME was achieved by today’s YALE NEWS, delivered by Yale’s President, Peter Salovey, to the Yale student body:

A photograph of him justifying the University’s decision to the student body was subtitled “Salovey listens to student disappointment over naming decision”.(http://news.yale.edu/?utm_source=YNemail&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=yn-05-03-16)

What sad state must a debating culture have reached in which it is newsworthy that people listen to one another? I promise: The NAME GAME with all its false and annoying compromises is one of the features of Yale’s culture that will be most difficult to stomach all year. When demands for more diversity and inclusion are met with mostly symbolic naming decisions and the institution of another “diversity committee” (as in the case of Yale Law School), the LLM student as a third party observer cannot but shake his or her head. Absurdity is completed when the underrepresented communities, too, start focusing most of their attention on naming decisions of little consequence.

To my firmest conviction this amounts to taking the bait of the NAME GAME.

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