Stanford remains undecided on whether it should remove the name Serra on various Campus buildings and monuments. Junipero Serra was an eighteenth century missionary who founded the California Mission System and forced indigenous peoples to convert to Christianity. And earlier this month, President Marc Tessier Lavigne announced that two separate communities would deliberate on whether to retain Serra’s name.
Free speech warrior conservatives desperately want the name to remain while social justice warrior liberals want Serra replaced with a figure more deserving of celebration and commemoration. Nevertheless, hidden far from sight, a consensus exists within this debate. Regardless of the committee’s deliberations, the name of a human being will remain emblazoned on Stanford’s various buildings and street signs. This is a fundamental error. We must simply stop naming things after people.
Retaining the name Serra is simply not an option for an institution that wishes to recognize and redress past injustices. Indeed, the notion that a name is just a label is deeply unconvincing, as naming a monument after a person suggests commemoration and therefore a positive moral judgment. Even various measures to note some of the figure’s shortcomings, such as setting a placard at the entrance of a building, are not sufficient to offset what more broadly appears as a detrimental, and unprogressive message. This is certainly true of the debate surrounding Serra, a figure complicit in the premature deaths of thousands of indigenous Californians. The name must go.
But sorry liberals, simply replacing the name Serra with that of another human being is a bad idea unless we are ready for never-ending cycles of deliberation and debate. No name is controversy-proof. History teaches us that we are almost invariably guilty of assuming infallibility. Morality evolves over time, and every generation arrogantly declares that the morality of its time is closer to the truth than ever before, that there is little room for further edification. We must accept that future generations may come to harbor drastically different moral values that may seem unimaginable at this point in time. In the same way that we often view past generations as completely insensitive, colonialist, racist, and ‘unwoke’ for expressing zeitgeist beliefs, future generations may also deem our conventions and views reprehensible. Some of the most revered individuals of today could become the next century’s Serra.
When modern self-professed “woke” liberals proclaim the end of morality, they ignore a long history of deeply self-righteous generations that have come before them. Yale has been forced to confront this essential truth in recent years. In the 1930s, Yale students, faculty, and alumni overwhelming supported naming a new residential dorm after John C. Calhoun, the American statesman and 7th Vice President because they believed that “the Calhoun name… seems unlikely to engender controversy.” In fact, they thought that the Calhoun name would attract students from the South thereby promoting diversity on campus. How wrong they were. Nowadays, the name Calhoun is most frequently associated with white supremacy and slavery. This led Yale to rename Calhoun College to Grace Hopper College earlier this year, a decision which woke liberals applauded. Compared to John C. Calhoun, Grace Hopper, a trailblazer in computer science and naval officer, seems extremely admirable in general and practically immune from any controversy.
But here’s the problem. Yale has repeated the same mistake it committed in the 1930s: the administration chose to name a building after a human being. Although it may appear inconceivable now that Grace Hopper will ever be implicated in controversy, we must not forget that a similar confidence led to the commemoration of now-controversial names like Calhoun or Serra. Serra, after all, was canonized by the Catholic Church in 2015. And while it is not inconsistent to acknowledge the evolution of morality while condemning past injustices, we must recognize that our assumption of infallibility will almost inevitably be challenged by future generations.
Let me suggest a slightly tongue-in-cheek example. Slave owners used to take slavery for granted yet now we rightly condemn them as inhumane. Similarly, before increased awareness on speciesism and vegetarian lifestyles, nobody found eating meat problematic. In the next century or two, when various figures in our current Stanford class are commemorated on buildings, I wouldn’t be surprised if the self-righteous, woke liberals of the day protest to have their names removed and eviscerated because they were meat eaters back in the day. Today, we have a Wikipedia page, “List of slave owners.” If I become famous one day, my name will probably be on some disgraced list of meateaters. By choosing to commemorate a person, regardless of how confident we are of the individual’s “timeless” values, we simply set ourselves for another round of controversy.
If we really want to end controversies over monument names for good, I suggest that Serra be renamed not after humans but birds. Birds can never be controversial. And in fact it’s been done at Stanford already! Flomo’s houses are named after Spanish birds. We also have houses named after trees in Spanish: Eucalipto (eucalyptus), Granada (pomegranate), and Naranja (orange). And while at first glance this appears a silly suggestion, why not opt for such a straightforward solution given the inherent complexities and controversies of the issue. This would be a nice compromise for ideologues from both sides who have been equally unwavering in their demands. I don’t see why liberals and conservatives can’t bond over their rose-tinted memories of Bellbird House, Chihuahua Hall, and Dikarya Dining.
Sun Woo Lee