by Brian Reiser
I did not quite know what to expect during Outdoor Action, my first true Princeton experience. I had heard only positive comments about the OA trips and how they were a good introduction to campus life. I was excited about Princeton and the opportunities that would soon be open to me, but one thing always concerned me: the political scene on campus. Was it truly a haven for conservatives? Was it politically apathetic? Or was it intransigently liberal, but still more moderate than its undeniably extremist counterparts, Harvard and Yale? And so, as I arrived on campus and began preparations for a week in the wilderness with my classmates, I was determined to develop some idea of Princeton’s political and social climate.
Having graduated from a high school that endlessly extolled the virtues of diversity but that was overwhelmingly and intolerantly liberal, I was concerned about leaping into a possible continuation of my previous environment. This unease was hardly alleviated by the OA leader guide, which I had the opportunity to page through the first night of my trip. We were sitting around our fire, eating dinner and looking through the manual’s game section for an evening activity. We started paging through the rest of the guide when our search proved fruitless. Instead of a game, I found overbearingly politically correct guidelines that tainted my perception of an otherwise enjoyable and inclusive outdoors trip with other freshman Princetonians.
None would disagree that respect is obligatory in a community such as Princeton, where differing beliefs and values are debated on a daily basis. The OA leader manual expresses the natural consequence of this necessity, namely that “participants [on OA trips] have the knowledge that no one will be discriminated against or refused professional services on the basis of ethnicity, gender, sexual preference, national origin, religion, disability, or socioeconomic status.” On the other hand, some OA leader guidelines are pointless at best, and stifling at worst. Perhaps the most striking example is that of gender stereotypes on the trip, although it is only one of many within the manual.
In addition to the fact that it explicitly forbids sexism on OA trips, the leader guide presents some suggestions and thoughts for actively combating discriminatory gender roles. According to the manual, the OA trip is “a huge opportunity to demonstrate a gender-stereotype-free attitude.” This is, of course, a perfectly valid statement. Yet the suggestions offered by the manual spiral into the realm of the unnecessary very quickly. “For example,” states the guide, “consider having the female leader lead hiking the first day while the male leader brings up the rear.” It continues with a request not to split up the groups by gender while performing “strength” tasks, such as bearbagging, and camp tasks, such as cooking the food. Avoiding subtle sexism is certainly a worthy goal, but I question the bizarre approach delineated in the Outdoor Action policy.
First, the literature preempts social injustices which simply do not exist. In today’s egalitarian world, would any Princeton freshman seriously interpret the male leader’s leading the hike as an indication that Princeton is a highly patriarchal society? Would a female leader’s setting up camp on the first day reinforce the antiquated notion that women belong in the kitchen at home? While gender-neutral recommendations may have played a crucial role in the 1970’s during OA’s founding and Princeton’s first admission of women, they are largely irrelevant in 2009 New Jersey. In fact, friends of both genders from other OA trips have told me that they thought the frequent changes in leader roles were motivated by a desire to give each a chance to lead the group, set up camp, and so forth. Simply suggesting that the leaders switch off for their own sake would have accomplished the same goal without the superfluous and strange justification of breaking gender stereotypes.
Second, the OA leader policy fosters an environment in which sensitivity takes precedence over open discourse. Instances of this excessive political correctness fill the manual, as in the following passage concerning LGBT students: “Do not assume that everyone in your group is heterosexual;” explains the manual, “you have no way of knowing.” Respect and mindfulness of other is certainly laudable. Yet the book continues: “You can help LGBT members of your group feel more respected simply by using inclusive language (e.g., discussing “relationships” as opposed to “boyfriends” or “girlfriends”).”
Such conversational censorships obfuscate reason on two counts. On one, “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” are gender-neutral with respect to the other partner in the relationship. My gay friends have always introduced their significant others as “boyfriends” and “girlfriends.” On the second, it, like the emphasis on gender roles, is counterproductive to fruitful dialogue on campus. By shifting the emphasis from listening to thoughts being shared to scrutinizing the manner in which they are presented, we are forced to respect tact over ideas, superficiality over substance. In no way am I suggesting that one should pepper a conversation with slurs; rather, one engaged in a conservation about any political or social issue should not have to worry about whether a term has turned from standard to offensive since last week.
My first encounter with the OA guide was not a reassuring one. But luckily within the next few days I realized that the institutional roadblock to free debate was easily circumvented. The intense political correctness laid out in the OA guide was largely ignored after that first day. My group, along with its many trail games, discussed marijuana legalization, political campaigns, the political environments at our high schools, and our own political beliefs and how we had put them into practice.
The backgrounds of my groupmates spanned the country and the political and social spectra, sometimes in interesting ways. I, a conservative from progressive Seattle, loved hearing about the very conservative Texas high school in which one of my groupmates was perhaps the sole liberal. We found that, despite the frequent warnings of the OA leader guide, intellectual debate could be productive without excessive concern about offending some constituency.
Outdoor Action turned out to be a very pleasant surprise as it dispelled my fears about the political aspect of the Princeton student body, especially in the face of the occasionally irrational institutional political correctness. I arrived back on campus, ready to start classes, with new friends and confidence that Princeton was truly a tolerant university.