In a very short timespan, the Princeton Open Campus Coalition (POCC) has amassed an impressive following, one which is claimed in their recent open letter to represent the “majority” of our campus. The group purports to protect “diversity of thought and the right of all students to advance their academic and personal convictions in a manner free from intimidation.” Despite the ostensibly honorable mantra, the POCC’s sudden emergence, their authenticity, and their intent all seem questionable. What could have catalyzed such a sudden and widespread affirmation of free speech and campus inclusion amongst POCC’s hundreds of supporters, when similar intellectual engagement spaces – clubs such as Whig Clio debate and Sustained Dialogue, not to mention Princeton’s numerous student publications – have existed longer yet struggled to raise comparable numbers? Have the POCC members only now felt their first tremors of social and intellectual conformity and/or hostility on campus? I’m afraid that club, too, has always existed.
Despite their self-righteous rhetoric, I doubt that all POCC members were simultaneously roused to action solely for the protection of free thought on campus. In fact, their letter to President Eisgruber betrays their alleged purpose. What brought a vast number of POCC proponents together, if we will be honest with ourselves, was an opposition to a very specific student body that stands by a very specific set of demands. If the POCC were truly an organization founded upon principles of free thought and plurality, then we must find it incredibly coincidental that the entire group unites itself in a shared opposition to every stance of Princeton’s black activism group, Black Justice League (BJL). In reality, the POCC is just as intellectually homogenous as the BJL, and likewise should present itself in a more honest form, as the anti-Black Justice League body.
The POCC cannot attempt to mask its opinions or avoid complicity while hiding behind the protection of majority thought. There is no neutrality in their alleged plurality; their engagement will be directly linked to the policies that affect the entire span of the Princeton community, for better or for worse. Too often, we find upon closer inspection of groups like POCC a disturbing lack of inherent advocacy; instead there only exists shallow antagonism towards minority group goals. For example, were the BJL to disintegrate and discussions on race to subside to docile murmurings within the African American studies department’s halls, returning to the status quo that was known during my early years at Princeton, I believe the so called Open Campus Coalition would find themselves suddenly with neither salient cause nor support. They would not be more engaged with the varied concerns of the Princeton community; on the contrary, they can only find purpose in opposition to outspoken minority groups. Groups like POCC do not want free speech/thought, they want comfortable speech/thought, and rely on the imperfect notion of majority rule to quell dissent.
I could not present a better deconstruction of the POCC’s problematic rhetoric than what Joshua Leifer recently articulated in the Nassau Weekly. However, for POCC members who now for the first time find themselves in a social advocacy group (for which I lend the term generously), I urge you to be cognizant of the fact that the primary motivation for your engagement in civil society was to overshadow an existing group of your peers who advocated to better the plight of black students. It is your right to do so, but we must call a spade a spade. That is the POCC’s true legacy.
Of course, the POCC’s organization is a step forward from the rogue and often vicious antagonism that the BJL has faced in other instances – through social media, ad hominem attacks, and threat of physical violence. All too often, we are reminded of the horrible depths to which supporters are willing to stoop to uphold American conservative ideals. Therefore, I support and encourage student civil organization, and place huge importance in intellectual autonomy. But we will not be deceived; protecting free thought is not the primary goal of the POCC. Where will the POCC be when there is no vocal minority group to rally against? Will they still serve the important function of protecting free thought? And more importantly, is speech in the absence of dissent necessarily “free?”
Perhaps the rise of the POCC has less to do with free thought, and more to do with a number of white students (and students of other ethnicities) who have felt excluded from the progressive deliberations taking place (due to their former inaction, indifference, or insufficient engagement in racial and social justice). The “coalition” could be a product of their sudden desperation for direct involvement and consultation in these conversations, even though they may have nothing constructive to contribute.
Though I have never been a member of the BJL nor a total supporter of their actions, I strongly believe that intellectual diversity is nothing without communal respect and understanding. Disagreement over the existence of injustices can either lead to a complacent stance of “Let’s agree to disagree,” or instead to an active assessment and attempted resolution of the issues in question; the former is an apathetic abomination of open dialogue and democracy, it is not constructive, it is obstructionist, and at this point it seems to be where the POCC is headed.