A way forward

Tyler Palicia

Our school faces a critical dilemma at this moment and how we respond to it will change the course of our history. The consensus amongst professors (nearly 70%) is to change the name, alumni are also split on the issue and students are likewise embroiled in the same political pressure cooker that begs us all to ask the question: how can we move forward without feeling bitter towards our own community? The answer, I believe, is to reevaluate how we see each other.

For the sake of brevity and argument, I’d like to parse the many parties involved in this debate into two specific categories: the progressives and the traditionalists. The former group feels that certain historical inequities on campus tie directly to its namesake and the latter feels that eliminating the namesake would divorce the school from certain meritable qualities that are inextricably bound to its legacy. It is important to remember that these two groups each want what they feel is best for the school, which is a good place to start a discussion. However, each group feels as if the other is attempting to do harm to some part of the school that they hold sacred, which is a fairly inoperable place to start a discussion. It’s very important that we dispel the bogus narrative that our opposing tribe is trying to do harm to the school or its students. In order to do that I think we should set the following ground rules:

First, instead of focusing on the flaws of either group, we should instead take a moment to recognize their respective merits in relationship to improving the school. The traditionalists feel that the preservation of the name is sacred because all will be lost if we start changing things in response to the often fickle cultural tide – not such a horrible position considering that culture ebbs and flows and some things must be protected despite it, although we may not always agree over what those things are. On the other hand, the progressives wish to protect the student body, particularly students of color, against the racially coded signals that this name transmits – also a very admirable position to take. Both sides are justified in their inclinations, however, they choose to see each other as total villains. That mentality has to change because it simply isn’t productive.

Secondly, progressives should not unnecessarily antagonize traditionalists by trying to tear down institutions within the school that may only be in need of an update. Yes, I am talking about Greek life. Over the past few months, the social media accounts “notunmindful” and “dearwlu” have gained a large following people associated with Washington and Lee, including many Greek life members. However, not to mention, quite ironically, there seems to be a consensus amongst the most ardent progressives in support of these movements that Greek life must be abolished or that all chapters, whether or not they have a history of racial incidents, must undergo a gauntlet of measures, some of which strike me as quite reasonable and others as kind of ridiculous, to ensure that “problematic” incidents will not occur within Greek chapters. So far at least, it seems that the Greek organizations are cooperating with independents to build a more equitable system on campus. This type of back and forth is all beneficial for Greek, independent and future students who will choose one of those two paths. I don’t think progressives should spoil this fruitful discourse by foolhardily suggesting the total abolition of Greek Life on the grounds of the organization being an “irreparably inequitable” institution. This type of rhetoric is of course false and its venom will most definitely poison the opportunity to achieve any real progress within the Greek system.

Thirdly, it is important for traditionalists to recognize that there are most certainly negative racial connotations to the name of Robert E. Lee which students, faculty members and alumni have every right to find disturbing. The man did fight for human slavery and any possible merit he may have possessed could never outweigh that fact. Despite anyone’s personal opinion of Lee as a man reacting to the conditions of his time, all must realize that it doesn’t make someone an enemy to this institution or its forward progress to take issue with the name. If any traditionalists are still reading by this point, I implore you to reserve your disdain for your real enemies, not your fellow Washington and Lee classmates.

Fourthly, it is important for progressives to realize that most traditionalists at Washington and Lee, particularly those of this current era, mainly cling to the name out of their fond associations between it and the good times they’ve had at the school. I find that many traditionalists deride Lee for his racism not to mention traitorism while upholding the notion that to rebrand the school under a different name would be tantamount to defacing their memories of the school. It’s a strange notion, I can’t really explain it, it probably deserves its own article in a psych textbook, and I guess we have to chalk it up to “humans are complicated.” After all, very few people, especially those who aren’t racist, want to admit that the name of a thing they love is harmful to minorities. Accuse me of looking at the world through rose colored lenses, but I have to believe this because not to believe it would be like having to admit that a drastic portion of the friends and teachers whom I’ve grown quite fond of in the past year are cryptically racist.

Hopefully these four rules will benefit you in your return to campus whether you are a hardcore traditionalist, an ardent progressive or somewhere in between, which is where I happen to find myself. It is easy to follow the example of some of our countrymen who quarrel over politics to the point of fighting in the street, but I hope it never gets to that in little old Lexington. Traditionalists need to realize that the progressives are only trying to help the school by rebranding it under a less controversial name while progressives need to realize that traditionalists are mainly interested in preserving some continuity to bind past generations of students to those in the present and future. Remember, the same student who may have carried you to the health center one night with vomit running down your chin after a party where you had too much to drink might also happen to disagree with you over the name. Or perhaps the professor who went out their way to make sure you caught up on your work after you had the flu for a few days and had to miss class might also happen to disagree with you over the name. Or maybe even the parent who pays your tuition, if you are so fortunate, might also happen to disagree with you over the name. The point is that traditionalists and progressives each bring unique backgrounds to the table that color their perspectives (no pun intended), but where we stand on this issue shouldn’t determine whether we are so called enemies of the school, or of each other. Also remember that without the progressives of the past to forge the way forward and establish traditions, then the traditionalists of the present just wouldn’t exist. Furthermore, need to stick together now more than ever because we are about to undertake something wholly unprecedented in the school’s recent history, returning during a global pandemic, and in a time when we will all be putting our lives at risk just to get back to this magnificent university, we shouldn’t be searching for non-quarantine  related reasons to divide and isolate ourselves.