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Answering charges: a defense of the Princeton Open Campus Coalition

<h6>Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

In an opinion piece published in The Daily Princetonian yesterday, Juan José López Haddad attacked the Princeton Open Campus Coalition (POCC) and its recent efforts to defend academic freedom. As a member of this coalition, I welcome the opportunity to litigate our important work. Haddad, of course, is hardly alone in his rank displeasure with the existence and work of POCC. Since the release of our letter, much has been said of it, both in and out of the University community. What follows is, to be sure, a response to the charges he raises, but it is in equal part a larger defense of our movement for academic freedom.

Haddad appears to be of the opinion that our letter to President Christopher Eisgruber ’83, which I authored, was motivated by a bad-faith disregard for our “non-white” peers and a desire to revel in our racist bigotry. As the first and only American citizen in my family and a person of color who had never known, or even conversed with, a white person until the age of 16, I will admit to being quite amazed at learning of my disregard for non-white experiences and my ignorance of racism. But, happily, my interest in identity politics never wanders farther than permitting me to relish delicious ironies.

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In our time, the charge of ignorance, like the charge of transgressing the favored “ism” of the day, is brought with such thoughtless frequency as to have lost all meaning. Haddad claims that our ignorance is evinced by our opposition to “widespread education” on topics of race. We oppose no such thing. We welcome “widespread education” of any and every kind, but we specifically oppose attempts to institute new distribution requirements that are unlikely to reflect points of view on race, identity, and class with which Haddad and his party of critics substantively disagree. 

Let us consider a few examples. Would a course that inducts students into the destruction wrought on racial minorities by decades of generous governmental aid count within this distribution requirement? What of a potential course that explores the devastation suffered by Black communities at the hands of Roe v. Wade’s progeny and liberalized abortion policies? Or, perhaps, a course that examines race as an ultimately meaningless social construct that must be abandoned in favor of a philosophy of “color blindness?” We would certainly not all agree if we were enrolled in the hypothetical courses listed above; in fact, I suspect that some of my most vigorous debates on the questions raised in them would be with some of my fellow signatories. 

What we do strongly oppose, however, is the institution of any requirement on “race and identity” that does not permit into its orbit courses inspired by all views on race and identity, with no regard for whether or not anyone finds their substance disagreeable or objectionable. If it is indeed the position of Haddad and his party that all such courses, representing any and all positions and ideologies on race and identity, would be counted equally under the distribution, they may count themselves unaffected by our objection. If, however, they have in mind a particular mold to which a course under that requirement need conform, they have failed to meet our challenge. 

We now confront an accusation, the raising of which every one of us foresaw when we signed our names to the letter — the charge that our opposition to “anti-racist” training must be rooted in our racism. After all, one might say, is it not racist to oppose anti-racism? If this line of reasoning appears unimpeachable, it is only because wars waged against straw men are always won triumphantly. “Anti-racism is not an exercise of ideology,” Haddad writes, spectacularly begging the question. Every member of the Princeton community, and certainly every signatory of the letter, considers themselves “anti-racist.” But the devil is in the details, and the level of generality at which the term operates renders it devoid of all meaning. What does it concretely mean to “preach racist rhetoric,” of which Haddad accuses us, when we descend from the majestic generalities of “ism” into the nuts and bolts of particularities? 

Some sides of important issues, from affirmative action to welfare and social policy, may be deemed “racist” by those who subscribe to a certain philosophy on race. He claims that implicit bias is “verified” and a settled debate when it is neither, thus vindicating our objection to the “anti-racism” training that he defends. When we work our way to the particular substance of training, will it be racist to question the notion of “implicit bias,” challenge affirmative action as itself racist, or question the various premises and arguments of the orthodoxy on race in whose mold the trainees are expected to be “trained”? 

What we need and wholeheartedly support is thoughtful conversation and discourse on significant, deeply personal issues like race, identity, and culture; our fellow humans are not seals to be trained with knowledge from supposed superiors, but possessors of equal dignity who are to be freely engaged, conversed with, and persuaded by use of reason and open discourse. The core of our objection to “anti-racist training” lies in the fact that the descent from meaninglessly general principles like “anti-racism” into the world of particularities when implementing such “training” resembles the former far more than it does the latter. 

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Haddad strangely attributes to us contempt for “any work that challenges [our] doctrinal and orthodox beliefs” and accuses us of attempting to preserve our “flawed view of society.” These charges are as perplexing as they are preposterous. 

We seek to shelter no orthodoxy and consider no doctrine too sacred to be protected from dissent. In fact, we, as a group of diverse students, have no orthodoxy or doctrine upon which we all agree, and we certainly subscribe to no “view of society” under whose flag we all rally. The only thing upon which we strongly and unanimously agree — and the only thing for which we advocate — is free, open discourse and academic freedom, particularly when they involve debates on deeply controversial issues and strongly held convictions. 

Put more simply, we care a great deal about how discourse is conducted at a university and could not care less about what. On the latter question we each have many passionately held views, but none for which we advocate collectively as members of this coalition.

To answer one analogy with another, it may well be inadvisable as a matter of architectural prudence to erect a temple of democracy upon the lone column of free speech and thought. However, when the column is one of such importance as to be of the principal load-bearing kind at the center of the temple hall, striking it with impunity is equally inadvisable.

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Akhil Rajasekar is a rising senior from Muscat, Oman, and the president of the Princeton Open Campus Coalition. He can be reached at akhilr@princeton.edu.

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