If you discount the potential of symbolic changes, then you haven’t been paying much attention to history. Even seemingly trivial amendments to the classifications of our everyday have precipitated sweeping effects on culture, ideology and the values of society – in good ways and bad. Holocaust scholar Timothy Snyder recently pointed out that, “in the politics of the everyday, our words and gestures, or their absence, count very much”.
That is why this week’s change in the terminology used for Trinity’s first and second-year students – from “freshman” to “fresh” – should not be written off on the basis that College surely has better things to be doing with its time. (Plus, while it’s funny to think of College Board members endlessly debating a superficial change like this, the reality is that it probably took no time at all.)
But in an age where fringe far-right parties are represented in countries like Germany, which once seemed immune to their rise, we need to be awfully careful that our symbolic change doesn’t end up fuelling the wrong fire altogether. When practically no-one seems to be overjoyed by a change triumphantly announced in a College-wide email by its second most-senior officer, and when it’s instead used by Alex Jones’s Infowars as evidence of the left’s preoccupation with identity politics, it’s worth considering whether it was an ill-advised move.
Yet, the reality is that we’ve seen similar shifts in many other sectors of society (think firefighter, chairperson, homemaker, flight attendant and policer officer) with little or no commotion. Just two months ago, Yale University swapped out “freshman” for “first year” and “upperclassman” for “upper level” – and nothing uproarious ensued.
So how is it that there was pandemonium in Trinity, which is often described in ways that would have you believe its campus occupies the most liberal 50 acres in Ireland? It’s no intractable puzzle: as others have pointed out, the answer lies in the absurdity of the new meme-like “fresh” designation. And so, a shift that should only ever have had a symbolic significance became an example of that one time “political correctness” really seemed to go too far.