Illustration: Sheri Kim

Illustration: Sheri Kim

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

               – William Shakespeare, from Romeo and Juliet

Just as Juliet enthuses in William Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet, our names are not a factor in defining our identity. Rather, our names reflect the contributions or negative impacts we have had on society. What we take from a name should be defined by the actions we commit.

Institutions, charities, schools, and buildings are often named in recognition of significant people, but this type of naming isn’t always appropriate. The point of contention is this: Should we still glorify historical figures that showed positive leadership in society even when some of their decisions were blatantly discriminatory?

When we celebrate people with naming, we are striving to accomplish two goals. Firstly, we are paying our respects to people who have had a positive and widespread influence on society. Mankind’s leaders, pioneers, and innovators are immortalized through these honours whether it be through their characterization in stories or the printing of their faces on currency. This has been a timeless concept, shown even in the earliest works of literature, such as The Epic of Gilgamesh. These stories feature portrayals of real historical figures that society deemed worthy of honouring (Gilgamesh is suspected to be a King that lived around 2800 to 2500 BC).  

But that isn’t the only reason for this type of naming. Often these influential people are viewed as role models for the general citizens of society. We strive to achieve the same level of success and positive influence that they represent. Therefore, when we use the names of renowned individuals, we are also establishing a productive environment that promotes characteristics such as leadership, altruism, and creativity. We use the accomplishments of the past to create inspiration for the present, and aspirations for the future.

But often times these people have performed detrimental actions as well. When these negative aspects are brought to light, the merit of the respected person isn’t the only thing tarnished. The charities, buildings, and institutions built on the founding principles derived from the excellence of the people they are named after will also face adversity.

For instance, Princeton University recently faced its own debacle. The university named a residential college and its School of Public Policy and International Affairs after alumnus Woodrow Wilson, class of 1879, who became a president of both Princeton University and the United States of America.

As exceptional as he was during his term as the president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson was also exceedingly racist. He created discriminatory policies that segregated civil services and heavily deteriorated the social status of African Americans. He even glorified the Ku Klux Klan, an extremist group that utilized violence to accomplish their goals of discrimination.

Recognizing this, a group of students at Princeton University instigated change through a sit-in at the office of Princeton’s president, demanding that Wilson’s name be purged from the university.  Evidently, some students were feeling uncomfortable about the “legacy” of Woodrow Wilson.

Though the movement did not achieve its ultimate goal, it did spur discussion around the issue and prompted Princeton’s administration to consider various accommodations that would help alleviate the issue. This was a step in the right direction. Even if an action wasn’t offensive based on its historical context, what matters is the current perspective of society. The needs and comfort of the present-day population should be placed above historical honours; modern values take precedence over traditional ones.

We shouldn’t live in the past. Considering the reasons for which we name buildings and institutions after historical figures, it is illogical to keep these names once the merit they represent is lost.  If the general sentiment of the population towards a person becomes negative, then their name should be removed. The definition of societal values is in the hands of today’s society, and the satisfaction of today’s citizens should be prioritized above all else. In the end, it is not worth idealizing the people of the past, if doing so antagonizes the people of the present.