By Taylor Morris
I am lucky enough to be able to write this article from the perspective of a “winner,” though I’ll admit that, if you had asked me back in June when the rumblings of the “Order of the Gown” referendum began if the proposal would pass, by answer would have been an unhesitant “yes.” The amount of “political correctness” that should exist in our free speech society is a hot button issue in today’s political climate. Sewanee, a Blue bastion in an otherwise mostly Red state, would unarguably lean to the left in this and most other aspects of the political spectrum. Even the University of Tennessee, mostly populated by local Tennesseans (see: Republicans) has started a very progressive plan of instituting gender-neutral pronouns such as “xir” to promote absolute inclusivity. The writing tutor in me also takes specific note of the option of using “they/them” to refer to someone in the gender-neutral case (subject/verb agreement be damned). Changing Gowsmen to Gown seemed a forgone conclusion, but things seemed to become murkier as the semester got closer. I want to talk about why I think the referendum failed, and why I think it was a good thing that it did. Let me “mansplain” what I mean.
For better or for worse, Sewanee is an institution that takes great pride in its tradition and history. That’s why we don’t blink an eye at Gorgas Hall being named after a confederate general (or perhaps we will now that I’ve brought it up), and that’s why I watch atheists tap their car rooves upon leaving campus to “get their angel.” This tradition makes us special; once many universities’ faculty and students wore academic regalia to daily classes, but now we are the only one that remains. Many people I spoke to that voted to keep the Gownsmen’s name as such stated tradition as their motivation for their choice. Now, I won’t argue for the virtue of keeping something intact just because that’s the way it has always been done, as plenty of old traditions have been justly abolished (see: slavery, et al). However, this comparison segues into one of my reasons for why keeping the status quo was a smart move: the degree of oppression felt by the Gownsmen’s nomenclature is marginal (*rimshot*) at best. Slaves rightly felt victimized at their status, but it seems as though most Gownswomen were rather fine at having their title abbreviated by a couple of letters.
To illustrate this more, let me tell you the parable of the public forum/debate held a few days before the vote. It’s important I talk about this, because most all of you reading weren’t there. Of the whopping approximately 20 people who cared enough about the issue to come talk and learn more about it, not a single person spoke in favor of the name change. Many of the speakers were women who related that they had never felt oppressed or excluded by the Gownsmen’s name, some even seemed a bit incredulous at the whole idea of the proposal. Let me share another personal factoid. Of every single person that I spoke to that was in support of the change, every single one was a man. Now, I’m sure there were women in favor of changing the name, but they were apparently few enough that I was unable to find one. Among both genders, the most common reaction was ambivalence, at best an, “ehhh, what the heck?” mentality that likely accounts for some of the 55% “yes” vote when the majority of loud voices about this topic were against. This strongly suggest that genuine support of the agenda was simply not there; if this was a massively supported change we would have heard more from the “pro” side than the sporadic words of a few young men in desperate need of favor (see: white knights). Regardless of your creed, you must admit that left activists never have a problem with volume, but the pro-“Gown” chanting was a whisper compared to other recent progressive projects (Cliteracy, et al).
Finally, reaction to the name change was muted by the belief that the Gownsmen have bigger problems than potentially sexist language. The sparsely attended public forum quickly turned into a discussion about why hardly any people showed up/the lack of participation and presence of the Gownsmen in general. While I don’t think it’s logical to ignore one potential issue in favor of another “more important” one, the issue brought up is nevertheless a real and much more pressing one. Why should we be so worked up about an Order that doesn’t really do anything? Why does inclusivity matter when hardly anyone participates in the tradition anyway? Why should we debate about a group that is a sham of its former self? I was amazed we were even able to reach a quorum, in my opinion the biggest threat to a Sewanee election. There were a couple of voices suggesting that the lack of participation by students and faculty alike is in fact partly due to the “sexist” name of the Order. I would refute this point as well, but I won’t waste my time debunking obvious propaganda.
Why is keeping “Gownsmen” such a good thing? I believe the best two reasons (out of many) are of language and personhood. The Universities of California and Tennessee want to make some big changes to English, but it seems most people (including the group hurt by our “misogyny”) have no issue with the convention of forms of the word “man” being used in a gender neutral sense (see: GownsMEN, FreshMEN, huMANs, et al). This was stated repeatedly at the debate. Yes, a few individuals on the furthest left corner of the spectrum are not happy with this, but any reasonable person knows that 100% approval of anything (see: perfection) is unattainable. The students that are offended by the Gownsmen’s name and prospective students that are confused by the name and think it is only for men (citation desperately needed) represent a miniscule proportion of people that will exist in some way no matter what the state of the Order’s name. Secondly, the argument of putting the focus of the Gownsmen’s name on the object rather than the Order’s members is an insult to Sewanee. The Harry Potter analogy used to support this argument has two major issues: 1. Harry Potter, while fun and cool, does not have enough literary or artistic merit to have a place in any serious academic argument, and 2. the very idea of Sewanee is based upon the wonderful and unique people that make it up. We are not like other schools, and our Order is not like other Orders. This is central to our motto, Ecce quam bonum. Frankly, if you think we should rename one of our most unique and famous traditions to focus on a piece of cloth rather than those individuals who wear it, you do not understand the very thesis of our university. This is, to my knowledge, the third time this proposal has failed, with the pattern seeming to be it is reproposed about every five years, presumably so that the voting constituency is made of fresh minds. We’ll see in half a decade if Sewanee’s students have as much reason as they do now.