Opinion | Words matter


By Dave Anderson

The raging controversy over how we name universities and monuments, sparked by the brutal killing of George Floyd, has brought to the fore that words matter.

Princeton University has jettisoned the name of Woodrow Wilson from its school of public and international affairs. His name, they determined, symbolizes racism, even though they acknowledge that Wilson was a great president as well as a major contributor to the university, where he served as a faculty member and president, and to the state of New Jersey, where he served as governor.

Dave Anderson
Dave Anderson (Courtesy of Anderson)

But there is sufficient evidence that Wilson was bigoted towards Blacks and that using the words “Woodrow Wilson” to name the famed school of public and international affairs can no longer be tolerated.

The name, Woodrow Wilson, is offensive to the moral sensibilities of many American Black people. Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber and the board of trustees agreed that the name does have a profound effect on what the school is and means.

The controversy over the monuments is very similar, although not solely a matter of words. But having a statue of John C. Calhoun or Robert E. Lee, and using their names on the statue, has angered, depressed and outraged African Americans for generations. These words, and these statues, are being taken down all over the country.

This battle over words and statues has affected the Jewish community as well. A controversy has emerged in St. Louis, where a statue of the namesake of the city, King Louis IX, a 13th-century Medieval French king who was an anti-Semite who persecuted Jews and led a mass burning of the Talmud, is the target of criticism by a group of activists. The statue of Louis IX, which stands in front of the Saint Louis Art Museum, the protesters have argued, should be taken down. King Louis IX can no longer be held up as a model for the citizens of St. Louis; some even call for the name of the city to be changed.

On the other side of the issue, the statue’s defenders say that the king’s strong Catholic values need to be understood in the historical context.

The lesson in all of this is that the Black community, the women’s community, the Jewish community, the Latinx community and the LGBTQ community are telling us that words matter. So choose your words, and your buildings and statues, carefully.

Dave Anderson is editor of the book “Leveraging” (Springer, 2014) and a member of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Synagogue in Bethesda.

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