Tag: history

A Way with Words, and Some Words That Should Go Away

A wise editor once told me that each word has a job to do, so it is important to select the right word for the job. Some words and phrases can compel and persuade, while other words can repel and anger your audience. Lately, I cannot help but notice the same phrases being deployed again and again in political arguments, often by people on different sides of an issue.

These are the phrases I would like to see retired:

  • performance art
  • tone policing
  • cancel culture

Each of these phrases is used to shut down a point of view and/or its counterpoint without having to be bothered without actually debating anything in a substantive manner. Each says, in effect, you’re not allowed to say that, have an opinion, or be heard. Each of these asserts that it’s my way or the highway, including cancel culture.

Cancel culture

If you don’t like that a thorough examination of history or institutional racism is being undertaken that could lead to a change, such as the Washington Redskins dropping its offensive epithetic name, you cry out “cancel culture!” If you don’t like that someone has criticized your point of view, again, you whine, “cancel culture!,” without considering where the underlying criticism is coming from and, gasp, the possibility it may have some validity you are unaware of or have not considered, for whatever reason.

Performance art

I was accused of this recently after staking out the position that my alma mater, Washington and Lee, change its name. (See prior blog post, “Why My Alma Mater’s Brand, Washington and Lee is Becoming Untenable”). On Facebook, I was tagged teamed by a pair that insisted I could not possibly be serious while advocating that the school cannot improve its diversity and inclusion with a name that appears to venerate a Confederate general. Why could I not be serious? Apparently because I am white and the school is predominately white. Ergo, I was accused of being disingenuous. I am still scratching my head that my earnest and deliberative position was maligned as “performance art.” I also could not figure out if the tag team (also white) thinks the school should retain the name or drop it. The first time I heard the term “performance art” in a political context was when an attorney for conspiracy theorist Alex Jones contended his client doesn’t believe the outrageous things he says; instead, the lawyer offered, Mr. Jones is providing performance art. I am still scratching my head over that. Call me old school, but when I think of performance art, I think of actual performance art, such as the work of Laurie Anderson. [For example, she has a work called “Language is a Virus (From Outer Space)”] Performance art is distinct from non-artists expressing an opinion in a blog or social media comments, so please stop using this term to pooh-pooh any opinion that raises your hackles.

Tone policing

This one pops up when someone has the nerve to suggest that an argument being delivered in an abrasive, aggressive, or militant manner might be ineffective. Someone sympathetic with the speaker’s underlying concerns might provide feedback to the effect of, hey, I hear you, but you might turn off other people from listening to you. No, no, no – if you give such feedback, be prepared to be accused of tone policing. To flip this around, was Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tone policing when she rightly called out a male colleague for misogynistic verbal abuse? Imagine if the guy tried to politely debate her on the underlying policy issue instead of calling her a [f*%#@! b*&%!]. Yikes, dude, you definitely needed some tone policing.

Here’s another peeve, which I readily admit is tone policing:

List of Demands

My apologies in advance to anyone who thinks petitioning with a list of demands is effective. The term puts the recipient into a defensive posture, in which they are less likely to respond to your stated concerns. The phrase “list of demands” really sounds like what kidnappers say when listing what they want in ransom money or response. I hear “list of demands” and envision a hapless victim holding up a newspaper in a proof of life photo. When calling for societal changes to be reflected in institutions, this is not an opening to a robust, productive dialogue. (Perhaps you’ve caught on that I do not embrace the “burn-it-all-down” approach.) In the alternative, might I suggest “shared objectives” or something similar in lieu of “list of demands.”

Why are so many of us in a rush to shut down a viewpoint we find objectionable? Well, there are a lot of objectionable viewpoints out there. Say you encounter an adamant anti-vaxxer or an acquaintance who says something that sounds like a racist dog whistle. You could ignore them. You could shut them down. You could inquire, why would you say that? You could simply state, I disagree. You could even elaborate on why you disagree. To do so effectively, keep a calm, firm tone. Use logic. Cite facts. See if they can extend what they believe to be their logic. Turn it around on them with an extension of their logic that is unappealing. Hold up a mirror by saying, when you say X, I hear [something illogical, undeniably wrong]. Offer alternatives, such as, if you want people to understand and recognize Civil War history, would it be better for the statues to be moved from public squares to museums? Another example would be asking when someone says “defund the police” what they actually mean by that specifically. Are they suggesting that, for examples, some funding be reallocated to mental health services, better training for police, accountability for bad policing? Try to engage in a discussion that could potentially arrive at agreed upon solutions.

If someone accuses you of cancel culture, you could note that you are seeking to bring a reality into starker relief for all the truth to be widely seen. Too often, American culture wars come down to all or nothing debates rather than constructive conversations on how we all define ourselves and could agree on what are our shared values. We do not have to agree on every single issue, but we must agree to be tolerant and accepting, including being open to accepting change.

Why My Alma Mater’s Brand Name, Washington and Lee, is Becoming Untenable

I’m not a fan of so-called cancel culture and find it absurd that protestors are now tearing down statues of Ulysses S. Grant and Francis Scott Key. Beyond the public square, though, lies a question for a small, private school, Washington and Lee University, which has already pondered changing its name. Why do I care? I went there.

A bit of background to illustrate that the name brand of Washington and Lee has been internally debated within the W&L community for years. Why? “W&L’s affiliation with its namesakes – particularly R.E. Lee – greatly limits the school’s ability to attract diverse students, faculty and staff,” observed a May 2, 2018 Report of the Commission on Institutional History and Community, a commission convened by the university. At that time, the commission did not recommend changing the name of the school. “The recommendation to retain the name is not passive. Rather, the commission thought that, at this point, efforts are better spent on concrete recommendations about how best to teach and present the university’s history. At this time, the commission believes that W&L can maintain its namesakes while being a relevant, ethical and vibrant 21st-century institution,” the report added.

Well, I would contend, it’s getting much harder to get past the name these days. General Lee is a potent icon of the Confederacy, who because of the persistent Lost Cause is now embraced by current white supremacists, as we all saw with the march of Tiki-torch bearing young white men who descended on Charlottesville, Va. from other states, to purportedly protest a push to remove a statue of Lee from a city park. With chants of “Jews will not replace us,” they evinced a message of hate with broader ambitions than preserving a statue.

These guys were not Civil War history buffs. Frankly, I doubt they really know much about or understand the Civil War. I doubt any of them have ever sat down and read a biography of Lee, who was in many ways a walking contradiction: a man who referred to slavery as evil, yet fought on the wrong side of “the War Between the States,” and managed his and his wife’s family plantations. (He also expressed an idea, that seems ludicrous in our times, of phasing out slavery on a “gradual” basis instead of providing for emancipation. How exactly would that work?)

Hand to God, when I saw the white supremacists marching around Charlottesville in the spring of 2017, prompted by the Lee statue issue, I thought, my word, that could have been Lexington, Virginia. Those horrible people could have been marching up “the Hill” past Lee Chapel and along W&L’s beautiful Colonnade. The school’s reputation would be stained by outsiders. I generally believe you need to define yourself before others define you, and in the wake of Charlottesville, W&L launched its laudable Institutional History program, which includes an examination of Lee. It goes way beyond Lee. After all, the school started in 1749.

Lee was offered command of the Union Army, but declined in order to defend his home state of Virginia and by extension, the Confederate States of America. For this, he is labeled a traitor and now a symbol of systemic racism. His easily recognizable face is prominently displayed in a Lincoln Project ad, “Flag of Treason,” aimed at dimming President Trump’s reelection chances. Right there, two prominent figures of the Civil War, Lee and Lincoln, remain at the forefront of our political debates in 2020.

Let’s be honest: it’s bad for the brand of a liberal arts school renowned for its academic rigor, intellectual honesty, and civility to appear to be tied to the legacy of slavery. (Incidentally, I don’t have much of a horse in this race in that I don’t give major donations to the university, I’m not a famous alumna, and I have no role in the alumni organization. I’m just a very proud graduate.) To be clear, I have absolutely no desire to erase Lee from history or the school’s history. Learn the history. Know it. Understand it. But don’t appear to be glorifying the wrong cause. On the other hand, tearing down statues of George Washington really serves no useful purpose when it comes to redressing systematic racism now. It takes a special kind of self-righteous ignorance and indignation to only consider that Washington was a slaveholder and ignore everything else about him.

As an aside, George Washington gave a tiny Virginia school $20,000 in James River Canal stock, so his name is paired with Lee as the namesakes. But, why Lee? It was not for racist symbolism. Robert E. Lee served as a president of the university from after the Civil War until his death in 1870.

It can be interpreted that Lee took the job as president of what was then Washington College in an effort to redeem himself and maybe restore his own reputation. In deciding to accept the position as president of the university, he wrote to his wife: “Life is indeed gliding away and I have nothing good to show for mine that is past. I pray I may be spared to accomplish something for the benefit of mankind and the honour of God.”  

The school was on the brink of failing and his role there involved rebuilding in conjunction with his exhortations in public life to restore the union. The school can examine, highlight and relate Lee’s role at the helm of the college after the Civil War. Indeed, an ongoing effort is under way to grapple with the conflict and contradictions surrounding Lee then and now. From the school’s website: “Lee, in particular, has become the subject of increasing scrutiny for his central role as the military leader of the Confederacy. We unequivocally denounce the motivations behind the Confederate cause that Lee chose to defend as well as the views of individuals and groups who employ Confederate imagery to promote an agenda of white supremacy, racism, and xenophobia.”

Lee is credited for starting what became the Commerce School, the Department of Journalism (we call it the “j-school”), the student body-adjudicated Honor Code, and the Speaking Tradition (you greet everyone whose path you cross out of respect). It’s this part of his history as an educator that some proponents of keeping the name balk at the notion of rebranding the university. I wouldn’t suggest that they are all racists. But I would suggest they rethink this position. You don’t want to be a part of the problem, even tacitly.

Not long after Charlottesville, Hurricane Harvey flooding here in southeast Texas spurred me to move valuables to our second floor, including photo albums, my college diploma and treasured decorative ware. When a W&L classmate checked in on our well-being during the protracted storm, I related that I had safeguarded my sheepskin because, no doubt, it’s going to become a collector’s item with Lee’s name on it.

I’m no apologist for Lee. I don’t see him as a man in full, as some have simplistically revered him, but a fractured man with some laudable achievements countered by some colossal, grave misjudgments.

How does the Lee brand impact me? My heart sank during a high school reunion weekend in Montclair, N.J., when a classmate and I were chatting and he (a black man) recalled that I went to Washington and Lee. I was simultaneously surprised he remembered that about me and concerned he might think that by some association with the name I harbor racism. We continued a friendly discussion and I tried to put Lee’s presence at the university in context. It was not easy.

If you have to keep explaining something, you may want to rethink how you are expressing yourself. A school still named for Lee in this day and age is too difficult to explain.

Understanding history, though, requires context. You must view an event from multiple perspectives and appreciate how a confluence of factors can stream together at one point in time to cause a major change, such as a war or a civil rights movement. Such things never happen for a single reason. There’s a catalyst, but never just one driver. As a W&L history major, I learned how professional historians use primary documents – not anecdotes, conventional wisdom or sentimentality – to gather what took place and why.

I learned about the Tulsa massacre in a W&L history class, History of Violence in America. For that class, I wrote a paper on the civil unrest in 1967 in Newark, N.J., and learned how bringing in white law enforcement from other parts of the state to control strife in Black neighborhoods was counterproductive for policing and dangerous for the residents. I’m saddened to see with our current events that we have not learned the after-action lessons from how law enforcement cracked down in the 1960s. Here we are, some 50 years later, witnessing police brutality against people peacefully assembling to protest police brutality. When does this vicious cycle end?

When my Dad arrived at W&L in 1958 from Bloomfield, New Jersey, he was excited to start school. The freshmen (all men at that time) filed into Lee Chapel during Orientation to hear a speech by the then university president, Francis Pendleton Gaines. Dad related to me that a man strode with a cane to the podium on the stage of Lee Chapel wearing a white suit and black grosgrain ribbon tie and this Yankee freshman thought to himself, “who the hell is this, Colonel Sanders?” By Dad’s telling, the first words out of President Gaines’s mouth were: “Ginimen (gentlemen), this is a fine ol’ Southern institution and I aims to keep it that way!” Poor Dad thought, “then what the Hell am I doing here?”

Maybe Lee really believed in reunifying the nation. Maybe we can do a better job now. We just don’t need the wrong brand name.

By Katharine Fraser, B.A., History and Journalism, W&L ‘93

Washington and Lee University diploma
My W&L sheepskin