Professor Stephen Davis’ request that Piersonites stop calling him the “master” of Pierson College has started a debate about, basically, what a word really means and what the standards should be for changing symbols with nasty associations. Proponents of the change argue that the “racial and gendered weight” (Davis’ words) of the title is a sufficient reason to drop it. While Davis is right about the word’s connotations, scotching “master” on this basis would set the precedent that reactions to a phrase divorced from the phrase’s intended meaning is reason enough to expunge it. Speech would be chilled and debate suppressed, moving us further from the sort of open culture the argument’s proponents claim to desire.
Davis wrote in his email to the Pierson community that the title is “deeply problematic … I think there should be no context in our society … in which an African-American student, professor or staff member — or any person, for that matter — should be asked to call anyone ‘master.’”
Davis’ goal is laudable. It must be unpleasant for black students to be reminded constantly of slavery. This reminder may be particularly offensive because it recalls the personal relationship — between white masters and black slaves — that defined black subjugation and white supremacy. If Americans are working to purge themselves of the remnants of these shameful practices, why shouldn’t Yale nix a title redolent thereof?
First, the spirit in which the title was introduced at Yale and in which it is kept has nothing to do with the bad associations. As Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway wrote in an email to the News, “I see [the title] as nothing more than a legacy of the British Oxbridge system that Yale was blatantly trying to emulate when it created the residential college system in the early 1930s.” So far as I can tell, no one contests that Holloway’s account of the title’s history is correct.
And indeed, in normal discussion and debate, context determines the meaning of words. Two examples should illustrate the point: “I apprehend seeing my organic chemistry grade.” Basic grammar, the other words in the sentence, knowledge of the speaker (I suck at chemistry) — these considerations would tell anyone listening that “apprehend” here implies anxiety, rather than understanding or intent to arrest someone. The warping of “master” is no different an error.
A second example proves the point differently: members of certain groups — religious, racial, gendered and other — use language among themselves that would normally be prohibited to an outsider. But imagine, say, a Jew and a Catholic who are best friends throwing language at each other that, outside of a context of understood intentions and mutual trust, would be off-limits. That would be coarseness, not bigotry. The benign origins of the title “master” should acquit it according to these standards.
The argument against “master,” if accepted, would be disastrous for open discourse. The fact that a word has an unsavory connotation even apart from its context and intended meaning would become a sufficient reason to ban it. This could be applied to any other sort of speech, shutting down debate and creating a culture of myopia instead of engagement. Here are just a few phrases that, in the new regime, would be proscribed: girl, American Dream, “hey guys,” Columbus Day, meritocracy, housewife, virtue, affirmative action, alien, “God bless America,” hell, even “free speech.”
There are two ways to resolve this problem: We could defer to the clear intention of a speaker when judging her words. This does not mean speakers needn’t choose their words carefully, only that those words shouldn’t be intentionally misconstrued by listeners. Or we could delineate which bad associations are grounds for changing the words we use, maybe stopping certain words or ideas from being expressed altogether. I do not know what such criteria would be, but whatever they are, they could be used to accuse anyone expressing a controversial idea of thought crime. A company of scholars cannot thrive, because truth cannot be pursued, if the rules of charitable discourse are replaced by such proscriptions.
Cole Aronson is a sophomore in Calhoun College. His column runs on Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .