Many people have remarked upon the similarities between Emma Yates’ recent op-ed in the Prince, “Getting unlucky on Valentine’s day,” (published 2/22/08) and Francisco Nava’s infamous op-ed, “Princeton’s latex lies,” (published 11/7/07).
Both take theatrical umbrage at the prevalence of a “hookup culture.” Both take aim at the imaginary misdeeds of university or student organizations: Nava objects to the distribution of condoms by University Health Services (UHS), while Yates objects to the cavalier advertisement of the availability of condoms through posters circulated by the Sexual Health Advisors (SHA). Both claim that the real risks of condom-use have been irresponsibly hushed up by authorities in the know: Nava stresses that condoms do not protect against the “psychosomatic risks of casual sex,” while Yates stresses that condoms do not protect against the oral transmission of the “two most commonly transmitted STIs on campus.” Both cite approvingly the senior thesis of Marcelline Baumann ’07: Nava, decrying the hookup culture, breathlessly divulges that some students engage in, “as many as 65 encounters in one year,” while Yates somberly reveals that some students are only hooking up because they consider such behavior normal. Both put forward the most transparently dubious evidence imaginable for their respective points: Nava waxes excessive on the phlogiston-like properties of something called oxytocin, while Yates treats us to what may be the most tendentious exegesis of any poem since Porphyry went to work on Homer.
Indeed, the resemblance between the two goes beyond a mere catalogue of incidental similarities. The two columns read as if they were competing entries in the same doctrinaire essay contest – his not-Mendelssohn to her not-Kant. Both columns are, quite honestly, beneath refutation. They are so obviously the result of ideological calculation as opposed to intellectual deliberation, and are so obviously cooked up to support moral positions extrinsic to the arguments themselves, that one hesitates to even consider them well-formed arguments at all. Instead, they are as vapid bubbles blown into a hostile universe: a quick perusal, and the dream is pricked.
The preeminent characteristic these two columns share is the mendacity which underwrites them. Unwilling to lay the real reasons for the positions they espouse on the table, the authors cloak their unpopular moral arguments in the language of psychology and epidemiology, and they hide behind a phony solicitude for the bodies of the student-body. Nava and Yates are hunting bigger game than oxytocin and genital warts, but neither of them has taken the trouble to load the right shot. Although their columns are purportedly written from a pragmatic perspective, their ultimate goal is the evangelization of a religious ethic which is wholly foreign to this perspective. Furthermore, the mendacity these columns exhibit is a structural consequence of the experiment that is the Anscombe Society – the experiment of pursuing authentically religious aims from within the framework of an officially secular club and of advocating moral patterns of behavior on the basis of non-moral forms of suasion.
My friend Tim Nunan ’08 presciently recognized the paradox at the heart of the Anscombe Society in his much-discussed Nassau Weekly article, “Non-Religious Discussion?” (published 3/1/07). The “paradoxical situation” of the Anscombe Society is that, on the one hand, its members hold beliefs which, if not religious in the strict sense of being particular to a specific creed, are nonetheless religious in the extended sense of involving ideas about the teleology of the human body, the transcendence of love, etc., which historically have an elective affinity with religion and which most people would readily identify as religious. In addition to this, language from the Society’s mission-statement, “a voice for those already committed to these values,” is telling for those with ears to hear: the Anscombe society caters exclusively to the religiously-minded.
But on the other hand, the Anscombe Society is officially secular and committed to secular ends. Nunan cites the comment of former advertising coordinator Cody May ’07, “You don’t have to be theistic to be part of the group.” Nunan also cites the comment of former President David Schaengold ’07 that the Anscombe Society is, “conscious to keep the debate in secular and psychological terms.” In so characterizing the modus operandi of Anscombe debate as beholden to “secular and psychological terms,” Schaengold consigns the Anscombe Society to a permanent condition of dissonance and dissimulation. They cannot argue from any position but the most tortuous contrapposto: with their feet firmly fixed on the ground of dogmatic religion, they must nevertheless harangue the secular world on its own terms. The Anscombe Society is forced to adopt these “secular and psychological terms” in order to disguise and palliate their dogmatic agenda. For the Anscombe Society, it seems, “intellectual engagement” is a code-phrase for “intellectual camouflage” in the same way “traditional” is a code-word for “religious.”
In his article Nunan sought to unmask the Anscombe Society as advancing a “peculiar brand of Protestantism.” Later he amended this accusation to refer to an intellectual strain of Catholicism popular among some conservatives. However, I think Nunan’s attempt to discover a single master creed behind the activities of the Anscombe Society is ultimately misguided. The diversity of religious affiliations among its members shows that there is no such creed. It is neither crypto-Protestants nor crypto-Catholics who populate the Anscombe Society, but rather, to coin an unwieldy term I shall never use again, crypto-moralists. The most accurate description of the Anscombe Society is not that of an ideological cabal trying to hoodwink Princeton, but rather that of a group of people with strong moral beliefs trying to evangelize these beliefs even while debarred from having explicit recourse to their authentically moral or religious grounds.
Needless to say, there is nothing unusual – or remotely objectionable – in fashioning moral beliefs consonant with one’s religious beliefs. However, what is unusual is the extent to which the Anscombe Society divests these beliefs of the moral and religious garb most fitting to them, resorting instead to irrelevant pseudo-philosophy, bogus psychology, inconclusive sociology, or alarmist epidemiology. Not only are these secular arguments often extremely weak in themselves (see “Princeton’s latex lies” and “Getting unlucky on Valentine’s day”), but they also come across as insultingly insincere. If the data were to yield conclusions contrary to the ones sought, no one believes for a second that the authors of these columns would alter their opinions. Analogously, abstinence-only sexual-education isn’t in vogue because it actually works, but because it tickles the ideology of those in charge. The Anscombe Society speaks one language, but holds another written in its heart.
The mendacious disposition of the Anscombe Society is a structural consequence of the nature of the organization. The Society proclaims in its literature that, “We, furthermore, look to what sociology, psychology, medicine, philosophy, theology, and human experience agree works for the good and health of the person and for the common good and flourishing of society.” In this list, I think we all know where the beat falls. “Theology” is a generous description for the overwhelmingly religious determination of Anscombe thought. And so the Anscombe Society is forced to offer a secular rationale for what must never stoop to the secular. The crass results of this approach are dishonesty on Anscombe’s part and distrust on everyone else’s. Arguably they mar the dignity of their cause by offering such patently deceitful advocacy of it (see the columns of Nava and Yates). If the Anscombe Society is an unwelcome presence on campus, it is because of its failure to level with students concerning their actual motives in the prosecution of such endeavors as their pointless and dishonest war to make condoms less available.
To lay the tragic events of the Anscombe Affair at the feet of the Anscombe Society would be callous, unfair, and incorrect. It would be callous because prominent members of the Society were themselves the principal victims. It would be unfair because those same leaders displayed extraordinary probity in investigating and publicizing the facts of the matter. Finally, it would be incorrect because Nava was mentally ill, and it would be a foolish to assign agency for his deeds to anything other than his illness. Nevertheless, if the impetus to such deeds came from the pathological disposition he developed, the form those deeds took came from the ideological environment he inhabited. Indeed, it is precisely the quality of Nava’s pathology – his apparent inability to submit the dictates of fantasy to the moderation of the reality principle – which makes him such an ideal register of his surroundings.
Francisco Nava fabricated the existence of a liberal conspiracy trying to suppress the good news of chastity by intimidating him, Francisco Nava, chastity’s irresistible evangelist. In fabricating such a conspiracy, I believe he was merely translating into the idiom of paranoia the institutional resistance he himself faced, both as a member of the Anscombe Society and as a student at Princeton. As a member of the Anscombe Society, I believe he chafed under its “mendacious disposition” which soft-pedals the authentically moral dimension of chastity and felt his aspirations to prominence within the organization thwarted. Yet Nava’s death-threat stunt was a symbolic rejection of the logic of the Anscombe Society even as it was its natural fulfillment. By crafting a factitious discourse by means of which to endue the cause of chastity with borrowed relevance, Nava was conforming to a familiar pattern.
As a student at Princeton, I believe he foundered in the vacuum of moral discourse which envelops the university. Simply put, moral issues as lived necessity – as opposed to political opinion-mongering, abstract thought-experiment, or narcissistic activism – do not intrude into the daily ken of the average Princeton student in any meaningful way. Princeton’s apathy relative to similar institutions is of course well-known. In my opinion, the censorious gossip which consumes our school is the vestige of a moral instinct which finds no discharge in daily life. The majority of campus engages in behavior which is considered neither justified nor unjustified, and perhaps this ambiguity is the reason for the existence of the Anscombe Society along with the considerable antipathy it attracts. In this light, Nava’s fantastic reports of death-threats beginning after his attempts to “speak up in class and precept” seem newly significant. For there was a conspiracy against Nava, and every student at Princeton was a member. The conspiracy is that no one cared what he had to say. The moral discourse Nava sought has no place or appeal at Princeton. By a kind of insidious sublimation, the vacuum of moral discourse forced Nava to pursue alternative means for obtaining recognition of the morality that dare not speak its name.