In defense of comfort for the comfortable

I read with interest the report issued by the Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming and the subsequent analysis in the News: “Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming releases report” (Dec. 2, 2016).The Report portrays a deeply thoughtful process with broad compass imbued with formidable scholarship. But the dazzle dims with short distance. An articulate obfuscation remains. The appeal to fundamental principles is, in the end, a defense of comfort for the comfortable.

Names of public spaces help constitute the symbolic space in which we live and work and in which the minds and hearts of our children develop. Public spaces are the alive and living forces of the present. But who controls the public symbolic space? And through what processes? Who are legitimate stake holders and how are different interests contested? Rather than provide guidance on these fundamental issues of power and politics, the Committee advocated a position disguised in academic principles.

There are few things more urgent than understanding the importance of the public symbolic space each society constructs. We teach in our classrooms about public monuments, collective memory and the power of flags, images and other symbols. How can we not apply that knowledge in our own front and backyards? How much more real and lasting some of this knowledge would be if we and our students were to each year participate in an orderly, collective reconsideration of the name of one building we see day after day. Through consideration of the collective decision-making process itself, our “brick and mortar” would also provide a learning laboratory for political science and philosophy.

The Committee recommendations provide a high barrier to prevent open and experiential participatory learning. The review of the name of one building a year in a systematic rotation would only reconsider the name of any single building approximately once every 50 years. Even such a measured community process is too great a threat to some.

Bruce E. Wexler is a professor of Psychiatry. Contact him at bruce.wexler@yale.edu .