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Pitfalls of diplomacy

When New York Times columnist David Brooks accused Princetonians of being “organization kids,” he claimed that our easy acceptance of authority and eagerness to please had fostered a passive environment in which the greater community protested more on behalf of campus issues than the students themselves. Condescendingly, Brooks called this a generational phenomenon in which “the new elite doesn’t protest,” too distant from the alienation and rebellion characterizing the yesteryears.

It was a portrayal that was both offensive and inaccurate. Princetonians may not take to the streets or publicly challenge authority, but we are also by no means helpless or submissive. Even the most superficial glance at student life reflects a vibrant and diverse community ready to take action on a smorgasbord of controversial issues, ranging from gay marriage to mental health awareness, veganism to bickerees. In fact, as an avid participant in Princeton’s political community, I took personal offense to Brooks’ insinuations and was ready to point to over a dozen instances of activism that had taken place on the day of his public lecture alone.


However, with my increasing participation in campus politics and exposure to some of the most “controversial” issues in student life, I’ve come to realize just how apolitical Princeton is. It has already been accepted that our preppy campus is too “proper” for large-scale protests and rallies, and with just cause — protests are hardly an accurate indicator of healthy politics. However, the range of issues being debated and the diplomatic way with which each is dealt has assumed a consensus theory-like framework in which only a certain range of issues are discussed, and done so in very limited, “appropriate” ways.

It might partially be due to the fact that Princeton’s motto is the epitome of diplomacy and political correctness. Being in the nation’s service and in the service of all nations hardly calls for scathing attacks on the establishment and sets parameters for what is deemed respectable behavior. It’s also relevant that higher educational institutions foster open dialogue and the need to accept opinions radically different from your own, making unilateralism seem boorish and uncultured. Even at a recent Princelink dinner with President Shirley Tilghman and some of the most active participants on the online debate forum, the conversation was restricted by diplomacy and needless concessions, naturally steering away from certain topics once opinions began to clash more strongly. With few exceptions, hardly anyone dared to counter majority opinions, and conversation remained strictly within acceptable dinner talk norms.

Similarly, at guest lectures and panel discussions, no matter what the issue or how radical the lecturer’s perspective is, Princetonians tend to accept expert opinions and ask clarifying rather than defying questions. With the exception of Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, most guests are greeted with an eager audience ready to impress and forge lasting connections with the lecturer. This past month, a former director of Asian affairs at the National Security Council, Victor Cha, came to speak about his book and the inevitable collapse of the North Korean regime within Obama’s administration. It was a bold statement backed by even bolder assumptions, yet, with the exception of sociology and East Asian Studies professor Gilbert Rozman’s barely concealed criticisms of the book, students accepted Cha as the higher authority and avoided taking confrontational stances. Rather than challenging his ideas and striving for a more diverse intellectual debate, Princetonians fell victim once more to diplomacy and political correctness.

It is important to note that challenging authority figures isn’t always the wisest thing to do, especially when most of our knowledge originates from them with just cause. However, when our desire to remain paragon students hinders our ability to question what is taught to us, diplomacy can not only be a hindrance to intellectual discussion but a detriment to critical thinking as well. Anyone walking into Whig-Clio or any other political organization can tell you that political correctness is hardly the first thing on anyone’s mind, yet the easy acceptance of such critical behavior as being outside the norm is in itself indicative of diplomacy’s ever-present snares.

In a recent human rights lecture, Wilson School professor Gary Bass extolled the hypothetical student who could argue against accepted norms to push for radical, even counterintuitive policies when dealing with something as widely unchallenged as “universal” human rights. His logic was that in questioning the standards of intellectual discussion and reevaluating our knowledge, we could delve deeper into controversial issues and broaden the scope of scholarship in a given field. This seems particularly important at a school like Princeton, where so many renowned policy makers and global leaders are fostered. While respecting other people’s opinions is a necessity, an overemphasis on diplomatic and conciliatory approaches can be both limiting and fatal to intellectual growth on campus.

Ye Eun Charlotte Chun is a freshman from Seoul, South Korea. She can be reached at