Names have power. They can both recognize and infuriate a person. Take the case of legendary Indiana University basketball coach Bob Knight. He was under a zero-tolerance policy after multiple disciplinary issues in 2000. Then in September 2000, a student reportedly referred to him as “Knight,” not his preferred “Coach Knight” or “Mr. Knight.” That minor detail sparked a confrontation that ended up being the straw that broke the camel’s back: Coach Knight had to leave.
The power of names, however, goes far beyond just a single person. We just had to search for a more lasting tribute for truly exceptional personalities, and we found one — naming monuments and places after people. What better way to permanently etch their names and legacies into history, right? Whether we should name anything after a person is a futile discussion. We’re long past any reasonable point of return on that subject.
As soon as we added value to naming places after people, everyone started queuing up for a piece of the pie. With politicians, comedians and well-off college alumni, you have diverse pools of people willing to pay to get their name memorialized. Meanwhile, other groups have another motive for jumping into the name game — control. The Lost Cause of the Confederacy, which attempts to falsely portray the racist actions of the Confederates as a noble effort in defense of states’ rights against Northern aggression, did precisely that. They erected multiple statues and fought aggressively to rename places after Confederate figures to control history and intimidate those who would oppose them. This occurred in earnest around World War I, with military bases named after Confederate figures along with a flurry of statues, novels and plays meant to perpetuate these false ideas.
This situation leaves us with a mixed bag of personalities among those who share this originally exclusive honor of receiving a monument in your namesake. Quite a few of them end up being unsavory characters; maybe a name has colonial or oppressive origins. The obvious step is to rename. For example, it is ridiculous to have military bases named after Confederate generals that fought against the nation. However, there’s one issue that we run into quite quickly — emotional attachment.
Why does this happen? While we’re usually adept at recognizing the flaws in the people around us, we develop blind spots when it comes to our idols. We deify some personalities, deeming them heroes capable of no wrong. That is setting ourselves up for failure. When faced with the inevitable flaws in a hero, we have two choices: accept them and grow disillusioned or cling ever tighter to their mythical image.
Hence, we see opposition to renaming efforts, even in the case of military bases. There can be justifiable criticism towards the right for naming military bases after Confederates using ill-formulated, emotional arguments. At the same time, renaming in itself indicates a diminishing of one’s honor — removing someone’s name indicates that they don’t deserve to be honored or remembered. Here is where those who’d like to remove memorializations of controversial figures wrongly assume that all cases should be as cut-and-dry as the Confederate name case. Renaming can cause massive division and confusion, as evidenced by the San Francisco school renaming fiasco.
Before delving into the school renaming proposals, let’s explore our perception of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, better known as Mahatma Gandhi. Maybe the mention of Gandhi reminds you of Ben Kingsley’s portrayal with iconic quotes like, “An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.” (Incidentally, this quote is misattributed to Gandhi.) Or perhaps you think of his inspiring impact on leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. to pursue non-violent protests.
As a person of Indian origin, Gandhi holds mythical status as a hero of the Indian independence movement and a source of pride. However, Gandhi is also a man who espoused racist stereotypes and supported segregation during his time in South Africa, participated in a twisted celibacy test by sleeping with naked women about 60 years younger than him and treated his wife Kasturba dreadfully. He has a complicated legacy that isn’t reflected in his public image. One might contend that he shouldn’t be celebrated and honored, but that is perhaps an oversimplified view.
First, to judge the past with present sensibilities would be wrong. Mainstream morals and attitudes change drastically (for example, a story published in The Michigan Daily in 1941 described a skirt as a necessity for women). Who knows how we will be regarded by society in the future? Did Gandhi hold beliefs that are understood as backward and inappropriate both now, and in the context of his time? Sure. We know this because the work of historians provides us with evidence and context that gives us a more nuanced understanding of who he was.
Second, one must also weigh the good against the bad in any assessment. Gandhi strongly believed in the ideals of truth and non-violence, promoted cleanliness, stood for the poor, broke down caste barriers and opposed the practice of untouchability. A compelling argument can be made for his legacy being a net positive.
Some contributions are so enormous that one can easily wonder what might have happened without that person at the helm. India had many failed independence movements before Gandhi, most notably the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. Many countries in world history have seen a civil war. Some sink into a cycle of coups and dictatorships while one managed to become a superpower — the U.S. We have to acknowledge the role that leaders play in tilting the course of history.
This is where the San Francisco school renaming proposal failed. By refusing to take input from historians, those renaming the school lacked necessary context. What followed were poorly-researched arguments that blew up the faults of renowned personalities like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln while failing to account for the good they did. There was also a lack of consistency in the board’s evaluation and highly questionable timing. Given these factors, the backlash was understandable.
I’d also like to point out that while names hold power, their impact is mostly symbolic and indirect. And renaming is not cheap. Conservative estimates based on other districts, like San Francisco, put the cost at around $1 million. For a school district facing an estimated budget deficit of up to $75 million, such an expense is questionable.
In the fight for a more accurate and equitable history, changing the curriculum to be more balanced would surely better serve the community. Those arguing for removing controversial namesakes need to exhibit more nuance in their judgments. Prioritizing symbolic gestures over more substantive measures only provides ammunition to far-right propaganda while indulging in mere virtue signaling.
Siddharth Parmar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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