In his recent opinion piece, in the wake of years of discourse on the legacy of Woodrow Wilson Class of 1879 — discourse that has suffered from the charge, incessantly levied by those in positions of power, that it must justify over and over again its very existence — Akhil Rajasekar ’21 paints a picture of what he, on behalf of the Princeton Open Campus Coalition (POCC), believes to be the state of free speech on campus. From his perspective, the picture is bleak. He assures us, however, that with the aid of POCC’s efforts we can achieve what he says we need: a “thoughtful conversation … on significant, deeply personal issues like race, identity, and culture.”
Unfortunately, Rajasekar both misunderstands the nature of free speech and seeks, by ignoring the conversation that has come before and calling for a new version of what has already occurred, to marginalize the voices of those who have, through years of effort, carried the campus discourse on race and Wilson’s legacy to its current juncture.
We need a thoughtful conversation on race, identity, and culture, but insofar as we need to continue to cultivate it by supporting those in Princeton’s community who have fought for the primacy and potency of this conversation and those who have upheld this dialogue, in the face of critique, for years. We don’t need the conversation that Rajasekar and POCC, in apparent disregard for all that have come before them, think they have been called upon to initiate, on their terms, with their oversight. Here is why: POCC does not offer a defense of free speech; rather, they pretend to be members of a disadvantaged minority and seek to obscure the truly marginalized voices on campus.
The recent POCC open letter presents the position of its members as one which is in danger of no longer being socially acceptable. What it misses is that the viewpoints expressed in the letter are not in danger of becoming unacceptable, they are simply irrelevant. The letter fundamentally misunderstands the conversations about race that have already taken place on campus, going so far as to assert “the siege against academic freedom is never at its core about race.” This betrays the POCC’s perspective on freedom of speech. They are not interested in upholding the free speech of those whose voices have been suppressed as a result of their race; rather they are committed only to upholding the primacy of “ideology and power,” which they themselves assert is the foundation of any siege against academic freedom. Including, apparently, their own. Rather than see the demands for anti-racist training and education as attempts to equalize the playing field, they see them as assaults on their ideology and their power. When blind to the factor of race, you see only your own, powerful ideology.
Ultimately, POCC does not want us to have an open conversation about race, identity, and culture. It wants us to have their conversation. Thus, at the heart of where POCC’s recent open letter goes wrong is irony and an utter failure to recognize it. By creating a coalition to oversee campus free speech, they declare that the speech of those who have come before, of those who first called for the removal of Wilson’s name, of those who have struggled to maintain a genuine, progressive, and productive campus dialogue about race and legacy, has not been free. They do the exact opposite of encouraging speech; they mute those whose voices they do not sanction.
What seems to have so galvanized the members of POCC is the fact that a decision has been reached with which they disagree. Furthermore, they disagree perhaps even more fundamentally now that they see that their dissent will not result in the substantive change they desire — the reversal of the Woodrow Wilson’s name removal. Laid bare is not a defense of free speech — for any such defense must in its inception accept the discrepancy between speech and action — but rather a condemnation of progressive change that is not vetted first by those who, though not representative of the campus majority, nevertheless have the loudest voices. It is the last, gasping, deaf, and deafening cry of those in power to be heard.
And what do you do when you no longer have power and wish to regain it without regard for the marginalized? You attack the structure itself. You undermine the discourse that has persisted for years and brought us to this progressive step. You slow and marginalize genuine agents of change by demanding that they obey some abstract ideal of discourse, one which is itself constructed, and by those in power. You do this without taking the time to learn about what has been spoken, evaluate it, and realize that the highest levels of intellectual engagement and freedom have already been demanded of those wishing racial equity. Those who have struggled most to exercise their free speech are those who have been marginalized, not those who pretend at marginalization so as to subvert the few progressive gains this campus has recently achieved.
POCC thinks it sees a campus where free speech has given way to that now-popular, trite image of the “liberal mob.” Instead, what we see is a campus that has finally decided to take action in favor of the most convincing argument to arise from our extended conversation on race: that abhorrent aspects of Wilson’s legacy disqualify him as a role model for future leaders. This is not a step towards a campus of “reeducation camps,” a phrase that the POCC letter dangerously and insensitively abuses. Instead, it is a step towards a campus where the words of those who have fought against racial bias are finally heard.
That is how free speech and democratic discourse look. They sound like the words that have already been uttered, by countless campus members, for years, in debate on this issue. In this case, their resounding conclusion is that Princeton is an ideal deserving of constant reconfiguration in the name of equality and justice. Indeed, in POCC’s attempt to have the last word in this discussion, what is often missed is that the decision to remove Wilson’s name does not degrade Princeton as an institution; rather, it begins the work of raising it to the standard to which its students hold themselves. The students of the Princeton School of Public Policy hold themselves to a higher moral standard than did Wilson; they deserve a better role model.
Ultimately, the point is that we ought not to be distracted by the POCC’s open letter. If Rajasekar and the members of POCC feel unheard, perhaps they should ask themselves whether or not their message is relevant, novel, or helpful. More to the point, perhaps they should ask their peers. Maybe they should engage with some anti-racist readings so that they might receive the sort of education that shows them how they could move this campus forward rather than hold it back.
The members of POCC are not in danger of having their opinions relegated because of who they are, although they seem to forget that this is what others have experienced as a result of the same diversion and obfuscation tactics that their letter exemplifies. They are not in danger of exile from the “unrestrained civil discourse” for which they call. Instead, they are experiencing what happens when you refuse to do the work to understand the discourse into which you seek to insert yourself. They are experiencing what happens when you call for a conversation on your terms because you refuse to do the work to understand others.
The first amendment defends the right of individuals to speak. It does not demand that we always listen to them. What Rajasekar and POCC misunderstand is that their voices are not unheard; they are rather — for perhaps the first time in a long time — unheeded. That is a sign of positive change for Princeton.
Dylan Galt is a member of the undergraduate Class of 2020 in the Department of Mathematics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.