Crashing Symbols

Fall 2015, Henry Robinson

By: Henry Robinson, SM ’19, for the Fall 2015 Issue (PDF version)

Symbols get up in our faces. Small insignias of privilege, ubiquitous brand logos, instantly recognizable images on flags — these are some of the most visceral, immediate media through which sociopolitical structures intrude on our consciousness. They are powerful tools for recognition and remembrance — manifestations of unfinished business, old wounds, and evils that will not die.

In recent years, the American Left has started to pay a great deal of attention to symbol. New battlegrounds continue cropping up everywhere, from the nation’s currency to its public monuments to the names of its holidays. And Yale is not immune. Even before the incidents in Silliman and SAE, debate over the name of Calhoun College had grown so fierce as to attract administrative (and even national) attention, and forced many students to grapple with an aspect of their environment that they might otherwise have been quite content to ignore. Prominent student groups, including the Yale Daily News and Yale Political Union, fueled discussion and gave voice to sizable progressive contingents who wanted to see the name changed.

Back when I first wrote this piece in October, it was intended as a criticism of the Calhoun debate, which at the time was (I think it’s fair to say) the most widely-discussed racial issue on campus. Much of the discourse surrounding it seemed a little myopic, excluding issues like Yale’s investments in the prison-industrial complex; its failure, as New Haven’s largest employer, to address the city’s 20 percent joblessness rate for people of color; and its inability to retain or build a diverse faculty. For an “open conversation” that purported to honestly address the university’s complicity in systemic oppression, the Calhoun debate seemed to do the opposite: to drown out more difficult, policy-heavy issues in favor of one that was digestible and easy to grasp.

But the Next Yale movement, by incorporating the college’s renaming into a much longer and more substantive list of policy prescriptions, has refused to let freestanding symbolic battles dominate. And in doing so, they have addressed two important pitfalls into which such battles can fall. I’ll still be using Rename Calhoun as an example here — not because I’ve been living under a rock for the past two months, but simply because it’s a debate I’ve experienced firsthand. This particular ship may have sailed, but I am willing to argue that the underlying issues remain relevant to the broader American Left.

The first pitfall relates to what I mentioned above. Symbol politics seems to rely (at least in part) on getting privileged people to recognize that apparently innocuous features of everyday life — the name of a residential college, say — aren’t innocuous at all. This is incredibly valuable, especially given that oppressive structures are easy to ignore when you benefit from them. But symbolic activism runs into trouble when it assumes that acting upon that recognition in the most knee-jerk way possible is sufficient for the purposes of social justice. This oversimplifies the issues at hand, distilling them down to one or two policy prescriptions that are easy to visualize and don’t require too much specialized knowledge to argue for. As such, these movements can spread like wildfire across the internet, news media, and discussion forums, obscuring all other debate.

This leads into the second pitfall. Social movements that catch on quickly, demand minimal concrete change, and obscure other conversations can actually benefit the very institutions they criticize, diverting attention away from their more serious flaws. And it is very easy for those in power to leverage such discussions to fit their purposes. In his Freshman Address to the Class of 2019, President Salovey made what seemed like a groundbreaking move toward institutional transparency and self-examination: he encouraged an “open conversation” on campus about the name of Calhoun College, and acknowledged the debt Yale owes to the slaveholding societies of days past. This was in fact a brilliant, and calculated, bit of PR. It at once made Woodbridge Hall look good and got students talking about an issue on which it was easier for the administration to act than, say, Yale’s woefully underfunded cultural houses.

The question thus arises: how can we talk about symbol, and change the symbols that adorn our environments, in a way that avoids the pitfalls outlined above? Obviously, one tactic lies in limiting the influence that power structures have over who talks about what, and when. But the principal solution may lie in how the issues are considered. Too often, initiatives for symbolic change are given political support structures that are all their own — the changing of a particular symbol becomes its own discrete movement, rather than being included as one of the many goals of a broader movement. When this happens, tunnel vision results.

This is a problem that Next Yale has (admirably) resolved. But I would argue that it’s something to which other prominent symbolic movements — Rename Columbus Day, Put a Woman on the $20 Bill, Take Down the Confederate Flag — are prone. If they’re divorced from a broader framework of actionable demands, these questions can wind up doing more harm than good.