On October 17, Ryan Anderson ’04 gave a lecture titled “What is Marriage? One Man, One Woman; A Defense of Traditional Marriage.” I was unable to attend due to prior commitments, but I half expected my friends who attended the event to regale me with stories of how the lecture broke into something like a bar fight or a riot in McCosh 50. However, the event went extremely well and all parties represented themselves and their interests with poise and propriety. The respectful, subdued milieu of the lecture points to the most positive and negative aspects of politics at Princeton.
Let’s start with the positive: Anderson was able to come into an environment where his views are hugely unpopular and make his case without being physically forced out of the room. Princeton Equality Project (PEP) asked pointed questions and supported such questions with snapping. In this way PEP respectfully showed their dissent while not being disruptive. This is a much higher level of civility than our peers at other institutions often show (I won’t name names but I think we all remember when the Minutemen were forced offstage at a certain Ivy League School in New York). PEP should be given credit for showing restraint on such an emotionally charged issue.
The Anscombe Society also deserves substantial credit for finding a good speaker and putting together a great event. They brought in the model of a good speaker – an academic who laid out his case effectively without animus or disrespect to anyone. From what I understand, Anderson didn’t let questions get under his skin and laid out his case in a clear, intelligent way. By hosting the lecture, Anscombe provided a forum for their voice to be heard and for PEP to show their disagreement effectively and respectfully.
Now for the negative: I’m almost disappointed the protests weren’t louder or flashier. This isn’t because I agree with PEP (I take a more libertarian view of marriage that many in Anscombe and PEP would probably oppose) or because I think that sort of protest would have been the right response to this event. Honestly, it probably wouldn’t have been the right response. The problem is that hosting a controversial lecture and snapping during that lecture passes for activism here at Princeton.
Think back to the 2012 election. How many students were really involved in trying to get other people to vote for President Obama, Governor Romney, or some fringe candidate? Of the people you know who have strong opinions on politics, how many did more than just vote? Sure, a few people from the College Republicans and College Democrats volunteered at phone banks in New Jersey. I even know a couple members of the College Republicans who spent their fall break in Virginia working for Governor Romney. However, the number of Princeton students who are willing to risk their time on political activism is extremely small, and the ratio of people who have strong political opinions to those who actually act on those opinions is huge.
I’m part of the problem too. I spend most of my time outside class running a political commentary magazine – it’s hard to be more academic and less activist about politics than that. I’m not saying that everyone should be an activist either – I’m saying that the current state of politics at Princeton is so inactive that spending time on a campaign or protesting something in a visible way barely enters our collective thought process. We love to talk about our ideas, but when it comes time to risk what’s actually important to us – namely our time and the perception of our future employers – we become terribly sheepish.
I don’t want to give the wrong impression about the Anderson lecture. I think Anscombe threw a high-quality event and PEP responded in an appropriate, respectful way. I’m glad it happened and that people are seriously thinking about issues as important as marriage and the family. It’s just sad that politics at Princeton is largely confined to dispassionate discussion because that academic disposition often leaves us looking as if we don’t really care about political issues. My hope is that we as Princeton students can find a way to keep respect, intellectualism, and the other positive parts of our political culture alive while integrating a more engaged and even activist component into that culture.