Woke Name Changes Are Just Bad Ethics
A Virginia school board on 23 July changed its name from Lee High School (honoring Robert E. Lee) to instead honor recently deceased civil rights leader and Georgia politician John R. Lewis. Many schools are undergoing similar rebrandings, discarding names that honored presidents Woodrow Wilson and John Tyler, Revolutionary war heroes Edward Hand and Philip J. Schuyler, and poet Sidney Lanier, among others. There’s even a movement to rename birds named after John James Audubon and other ornithologists. In every case, activists say changes are necessary because these persons were responsible for slavery or racism.
Discussing this development in a 20 July Washington Post op-ed, Kate Cohen argues: “If we must name our streets, schools and towns after people—a famously flawed and complicated bunch—we should be ready to rename them based on new information or new ethical standards. We should be proud of renaming them. The old name will always be part of our history. The new name is for now.” Such decisions reflect a desire to “take history seriously,” argues Cohen. Yet this woke historical revisionism isn’t really fundamentally about history. It’s about, as Cohen herself hints at, ethics and philosophy. And bad ethics and philosophy, at that.
Cohen calls these name changes representative of “an intellectual principle.” But what is that principle? The language of woke activism suggests it is this: any historical person associated with slavery or racism is not worthy of public memorialization. Pundits have noted that the reductio ad absurdum of this principle results in excising not only Confederates but George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe from public honor. Moreover, as Jordan Peterson uncomfortably reminds us, we are kidding ourselves if we think that if we had lived in an earlier time when racism was du jour, we would have bucked the trend.
The deeper dilemma with the “principle” of censuring anyone associated with racism—labeled now the vilest of sins—is that, as Cohen herself acknowledges, social ethical norms are relative and fungible. Americans obsess about racism right now. Three years ago, we obsessed over women’s rights (#MeToo). Given the volatile, distracted nature of our culture we will soon shift our gaze elsewhere. Then school boards and town councils will begin the process again, eliminating public memorialization of those deemed guilty of sexism, bigotry, economic exploitation, animal cruelty or really, anything. Once one scapegoat has been purged, “someone else—a former innocent—must take his place,” says Georgetown professor Joshua Mitchell in American Awakening, Identity Politics and Other Afflictions of Our Time.
In After Virtue, philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre argues that the dominant ethical theories of the secular West are inherently emotivist and subjective. He explains: “whatever criteria or principles or evaluative allegiances the emotivist self may profess, they are to be construed as expressions of attitudes, preferences and choices which are themselves not governed by criterion, principle, or value.” Our ethical appeals are essentially assertive, rather than descriptive of reality. Calling racism the worst, unforgivable sin is an emotive, unverifiable ethical assertion, not an objective principle. The “worst sin” can easily be altered by the unstable winds of public sentiment to something else: sexism, bigotry, exploitation, animal cruelty, whatever.
This is compounded by an unacknowledged, unverified philosophy that decrees contemporary society, simply by virtue of being contemporary, is the most ethical in history. Like emotivist ethics, this premise relies on no objective criteria, but is simply and haughtily asserted. This is the fallacy of presentism, or what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery.” On what basis are we presumed superior to all of our forefathers? Simply because we are in the present. Yet if we examine a criterion like family stability, we’re actually doing quite worse than previous generations, deeply damaging not only our children, but widening societal inequality.
Cohen claims we should be “proud” to participate in this damnatio memoriae process. But this amounts to patting ourselves on the back for honoring only those that reflect the zeitgeist, rather than any objective, eternal principle. This is akin to a sports fan dispensing with his team merchandise for another team that just won the championship, and congratulating himself for wearing paraphernalia of the winning team. Such a fan honors the latest winners, who are for the moment enjoying the most public commendation. But what’s praiseworthy about that? If anything, it’s emblematic of being fickle and unprincipled.
Moreover, and writing as a former public high-school history teacher, Cohen’s claims that this renaming trend is happening now because of new historical data is absurd. When did we not know Woodrow Wilson was a racist, or that John Tyler, Edward Hand, and Philip J. Schuyler owned slaves? This has been public, widely-discussed knowledge, both by historians and public school social studies curricula for decades. Rather, we are making revised ethical assertions about the relative worth of these people’s historical influence in light of volatile popular mores.
We need a more rational and objective method for determining who we honor in history. One approach with ancient roots in Aristotle is to honor those whose lives in some (albeit imperfect) sense reflected a universal, objective good, like the cardinal virtues of courage, justice, prudence, and temperance. Another, commended by historian Wilfred M. McClay in his magisterial American history textbook Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story, is to honor those who patriotically sought, however imperfectly, to make this nation a better place for its citizens. Such traits—virtue and patriotism—are recognized as eternally worthy of emulation. They’re also intended to instruct descendants inherently inclined to forget them.
If schools or public art must only and always reflect the ever-shifting emotions and opinions of the zeitgeist, they serve only a self-congratulatory function. We self-righteously laud ourselves for our woke, inclusivist sensibilities, seemingly ignorant that the fickle, increasingly ignorant mob will one day come for us for our own misdeeds. This is narcissistic, self-destructive, and inimical to societal preservation. For future generations, America can and must do better. Thankfully, our forefathers provided an alternative method, if we’re still capable of hearing them.
Casey Chalk covers religion and other issues for The American Conservative and is a senior writer for Crisis Magazine. He has degrees in history and teaching from the University of Virginia, and a masters in theology from Christendom College.