I.
It’s inconspicuous. Just one of dozens of yellow squares on the first-year orientation activities calendar, nestled between an open house for a student newspaper and a town hall for Princeton’s various dance troupes, it would be easy to miss as I skim the endless list of extracurricular opportunities the week before classes starts. But it catches my eye, perhaps because, unlike its neighbors on the digital calendar, it’s not a generic recruitment event; rather, it promises real substance. “Anscombe Discussion Series Fall 2020 Kickoff,” it reads. I’m intrigued. Right click, open link in new tab, read description: “In our first meeting of the semester, we will be discussing how sex and relationships are portrayed in Princeton’s orientation programming.” Sponsor name: “Anscombe Society.” I’m more intrigued. Check time and date, realize I have a conflict on that particular Friday at 4:30, frown.

 

But, even if I can’t make the event, I’m eager to discover what sort of progressive, feminist organization I’m missing out on—do I want to reach out and try to make the next meeting? I take to Google and find the website of the Princeton Anscombe Society:

 

“We aim to promote an environment that values the crucial role the intact, stable family plays in sustaining society; the definition of marriage as the exclusive, monogamous union of a man and a woman; its role as an institution which is necessary for the healthy family, and thus for a healthy society; a conception of feminism that encourages motherhood; and a chaste lifestyle which respects and appreciates human sexuality, relationships, and dignity. Therefore, we celebrate sex as unifying, beautiful, and joyful when shared in its proper context: that of marriage between a man and woman.”

 

Oh.

 

My first reaction is repulsion. My parents aren’t married. One of my best friends is gay. The bit about the “conception of feminism that encourages motherhood,” in particular, causes my mind to leap to the late-nineteenth-century German concept of Kinder, Küche, Kirche (kids, kitchen, church), later embraced by the Third Reich, which, as Hitler explained it, posited that a “woman’s world is her husband, her family, her children, and her home.” In short, the Anscombe Society appears to represent the antithesis of every value I hold around sexuality, marriage, and gender equality. My immediate instinct is to write off the Society’s members as sexists and homophobes not worth my time. I’m all geared up to close the web browser and delete this highly upsetting ten-minute saga from my lefty brain.

 

Then it hits me: maybe this is one of those crazy, unexpected college experiences people tell you about while walking backwards and giving you a tour of campus or reminisce about at Thanksgiving after asking you how school is going. I mean, I’ve justified Princeton’s tuition by telling myself that the University will afford me opportunities to step outside of my comfort zone, to meet people I otherwise wouldn’t, to pop the bubble of my adolescent years. In a virtual environment, such opportunities have been fewer and farther between than I’d hoped. Yet here I am, dismissing the first bit of ideological pushback I encounter. Might something be gained by entertaining the ideas of the Anscombe Society?

 

II.

Eight weeks later. Friday, 4:30. Anscombe Society Zoom meeting.

 

Apart from me, five people are present, four of whom turn on their cameras and say hi. All four are men, though Aidan Hintermaier, a junior and the club’s current president, tells me that roughly half of the members who make weekly meetings (which he estimates to be about ten people) are women. He also says that just 10% are students of color but notes that in years past that figure has been closer to 25%.

 

A couple of the attendees haven’t met one another yet, so they introduce themselves. There’s confusion over the pronunciation of one of the names, followed by the customary, “Apologies,” “No worries.” Then a protracted silence until two members begin talking at the same time, leaving Zoom characteristically helpless, unsure of whom to prioritize. I’m not sure what I expected, but so far, this is feeling like pretty much every other virtual student group event I’ve attended in the first few months of college. 

 

Hassan Ahmad, a senior and Anscombe regular, finally gets the ball rolling: “What’s on the docket tonight?”

 

Hintermaier, who is acting as the moderator, has known for weeks that I’ll be joining this afternoon (and that I’ll likely be writing about my experience for a certain weekly campus publication), and it’s apparent that he intends to steer clear of an in-depth discussion of the ethics of the Society’s tenets, which Ahmad describes as “unpopular.” Later in the hour, Hintermaier will state this explicitly: “I don’t think we’re necessarily going to get into specifics.” Indeed, the beginning of the meeting will be marked by a persistent prevarication, a decided aversion to actually naming the controversial values of the club. Rarely will members refer to their beliefs in monogamy, chastity, and exclusive heterosexuality explicitly; instead, they employ euphemisms like “the platform that we hold,” “these opinions,” and “this stuff.”

 

And so, in response to Ahmad, Hintermaier says that today will be “a little bit more of a generic meeting” and proceeds with the first question for consideration: “What brought you here?”

 

One by one, and with plenty of Zoom awkwardness, the four participating attendees share their answers. A relatively new member, a first-year student who prefers not to be named, explains that, for them, the social aspect of the club was as attractive as its espoused beliefs: “Especially this year, it’s been difficult to meet people, and so having a small group where we can discuss interesting topics in general has been appealing to me.” Other members echo this sentiment. “I found that this is a really great social setting as well as reflecting stuff that I believe,” says Hintermaier.

 

Jacob Hayes, a sophomore and the current finance director of the club, recalls that he was at first reluctant to join the Society because he thought it would be “really weird, like a bunch of people talking about chastity all the time.” But his outlook changed after a friend brought him to a meeting. 

 

“I showed up, and there were a bunch of different topics every week,” he said. “It was actually really nice to have discussions that weren’t roast sessions or anything. They weren’t trying to prove each other wrong. They were actually being constructive.” 

 

Ahmad shares a similar experience, saying he “didn’t really care for Anscombe” in his first year on campus but that he now appreciates that it offers a “setting to discuss these matters in a way that [he] could otherwise not.” He notes that, although he is Catholic, members of the Society come from a variety of religious and non-religious backgrounds.

 

Huh. Based on the club’s website, I would have expected unfettered vitriol and bigotry, and apparently, I’m not alone in this assumption. “I feel like a lot of times people on campus think Anscombe and they think Westboro Baptist style, but it’s just very much not the case,” remarks Ahmad. So far, that claim appears to be holding up: their responses to Hintermaier’s question are rather tame, and they aren’t even talking much about the actual platform of the club.

 

As the meeting proceeds, the topics ranging from the successes and failures of past events to the difficulty of having nuanced debate on social media to the importance of connecting with people of different backgrounds, it becomes clear that the members of the Society do not view active “conversion” as a core objective. Hayes explains that, for him, it’s enough for Anscombe to “just exist,” to demonstrate that at least a small part of Princeton’s population buys into the values of the Society. He says this “shows that there are good points on both sides. We can respect each other and have discussions about it instead of both pretending the other is just dumb.” 

 

Ahmad, who insists that Anscombe is unfairly labeled as “homophobic and anti-women,” seconds this: “Regardless of what you think, you always want to affirm the other person’s dignity.” But he qualifies his definition: “What the parameters and substance of dignity are, what that entails—there are some questions about how far that goes.”

 

As others chime in, I note a fundamental conflict that the Society is grappling with: how to strike a balance between advocating for an inherently exclusionary vision of the world—what they refer to throughout the conversation as “activism”—while still practicing acceptance and open-mindedness, qualities that every member stresses are integral to the group’s mission. 

 

Hintermaier speaks to this tension directly. Though he believes that the most important function of Anscombe is to provide a space for the quiet exchange of conservative notions about sex, sexuality, and gender, he also feels an obligation to propagate those positions. “If you believe that these things make people happy, you have to go out and share them,” he argues. “If you think you’ve got something that brings happiness, it would be selfish to just sit on it.” 

 

At the same time, he recognizes that it’s not his place to force his values on others, especially when he lacks firsthand knowledge of what he deems immoral or unhealthy. “I think we have to understand that if we’re talking about, ‘hey, we believe that you shouldn’t have sex before marriage,’ then I think we can be a little bit freer because we’re trying to do that,” he says. “But when we talk about stuff like transgenderism and homosexuality, which, admittedly, we don’t tend to focus on as much, we have to be very careful because we don’t have that same understanding [as someone who is gay or transgender]. It’s not as emotionally meaningful to us as it is to the person we’re discussing with.”

 

Hintermaier’s solution to the difficulty that arises from trying to talk to people about aspects of their identity that are deeply foreign to those in the Society is to steer clear of those topics as much as possible. Instead, he prefers to stick with what he calls “basic stuff,” or issues that he feels rest on more common ground, such as pornography and its omnipresence in modern society. “When we’ve done our outreach recently, pornography has been a big one because I think both sides of the issue tend to agree that there’s something not quite right about this.”

 

I’m relieved to learn that the Anscombe members don’t feel it’s acceptable to tell people to their faces that their genders and sexualities are invalid. But I’m also somewhat confused. Regardless of what they choose to focus on at their various “tables,” or open discussions, their mandate, clear as day on the homepage of their website, is to “promote” monogamy, marriage, chastity, and conservative femininity. Do Hintermaier and others truly feel that they’re carrying out their avowed mission if they refuse to broach these far more prescriptive and dogmatic norms, or at least to do so in public?

 

The answer to that question, it turns out, isn’t entirely clear. In fact, despite what the website says, it’s not even obvious that the Society has a consistent mission at all.

 

Both Hintermaier and Ahmad, the two longest-tenured of those participating in the conversation, stress that they do not take ownership of the actions of previous iterations of the club. “Throughout our history, we have had varying goals depending on the leadership, the members, all that,” says Hintermaier. Ahmad is less circumspect: “I’m sure there have been points in Anscombe’s history where people have probably misbehaved at one point or another, like any organization does. They were excessively divisive or controversial.” The question that faces this group, it seems, is what its priorities are.

 

Over the course of the meeting, three of the five initial members on the call leave, and two others take their places (both men). Joaquim Brooks, a Princeton graduate of the Class of 2020 and former club member who joins about half an hour in, makes this dilemma explicit: “That’s something I think Anscombe needs to think about: what its reasons are for existing,” he says. “Because sometimes I’ve had trouble explaining it. It depends more on the people running it to determine what the course is.”

 

“Is it tabling?” he asks, wrinkling his nose. “Is it a safe space? Is it a mechanism for the larger Catholic or Orthodox mafia?” He chuckles. “Is it an advocacy organization? Does it organize op-eds in the Tory, [Princeton’s primary conservative publication], which is something I helped facilitate? I think that you need to have your intentions clear, but your intentions need to be clear both with respect to why you’re motivated but also what exactly the mission is.”

 

Though a concrete agenda for the future of the club is never quite reached, one clear theme emerges: conversation lies at the core of the Anscombe Society’s approach. Its members are well aware that most of the Princeton student body does not share their perspectives, but they nonetheless feel it’s important to sit down and hash it out with their ideological opposites. “I don’t think we’re directly trying to start a revolution,” Hintermaier says. “We’re just trying to live normal lives and, in the relationships that we cultivate, if the time comes, then maybe we can have a constructive dialogue.”

 

The meeting lasts for another fifteen minutes or so, much of it spent rehashing previous discussion points for the benefit of the two newcomers. As he closes for the afternoon, Hintermaier remarks on my intrusion into the club’s normal business: “This is the first time we’ve done something like this, but I think, all things considered, it went pretty well.”

 

All things considered, I’d have to agree.

 

III.

In an essay entitled “Epistemic Injustice and Epistemologies of Ignorance,” José Medina, a professor of philosophy at Northwestern University, provides a framework for recognizing and addressing “‘epistemologies of ignorance’ that protect the voices, meaning, and perspectives of some by silencing the voices, meanings and perspectives of others.” Medina argues that the only way to deconstruct these inherently one-sided worldviews is to challenge them with contradictory ones, and to do so intentionally and vigorously. He writes: “The mere coexistence of epistemic perspectives is not sufficient for lucidity and epistemic virtues to emerge; there must be beneficial epistemic friction between the alternative standpoints available.” Medina explains that this “beneficial epistemic friction” requires actually internalizing uncomfortable, “alien” concepts—considering them thoughtfully and with an open mind, chewing on them for a while. He concludes that the encouragement of beneficial epistemic friction is the only way to uproot entrenched values.

 

Medina, whose work comprises a chapter of the 2017 Routledge Companion to the Philosophy of Race, seeks primarily to prescribe a means of “epistemic resistance” to racism. But his antidote of beneficial epistemic friction no doubt has applications well beyond that context. When Medina lectured in my African American Studies class in October 2020, he expanded on his theory, expressing his belief that the United States is fracturing into disparate camps of “epistemic isolation,” unable to communicate with one another. “Communities of public discourse have become isolated from each other so they cannot exercise epistemic friction,” he remarked.

 

Going to a meeting of the Anscombe Society didn’t cause my opinions of its platform to change. Choose whatever label you want—misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic, heterosexist, just plain awful—and I’m right there with you. But there’s no doubt in my mind that I made the right decision in attending. I’m glad I took the time to actually meet people like Hintermaier and Ahmad, whose beliefs I find abhorrent, but who, it turns out, are real people just like me, with names and faces—mouths with which they share their ideas and ears with which they listen to mine. Sure, I’m probably getting a skewed perspective: as a first-year student, I’ve never experienced an Anscombe event in person, and I’m forced to take what they tell me about the club and its methods for granted. But the hour I spent with them on Zoom debunked many of my initial assumptions. They approached sensitive topics more thoughtfully and with more nuance than I anticipated, and they didn’t roll their eyes or tell me I was the product of sin when I shared that I was born out of wedlock.

 

I’m certain I’ll never endorse the principles of the Anscombe Society, and I’m pretty sure I won’t become a regular attendee of their meetings. But I think it’s important that we ask ourselves why we think what we think and that we give others the opportunity to challenge us—after all, the odds that we actually get it all figured out on the first try are pretty slim.

 

Needless to say, engaging in good faith with those whose politics one deplores is easier said than done. Though I generally dislike the word “polarized” as shorthand for the inability of Americans today to participate in open-minded discourse, there’s certainly something to that characterization. I can’t help but feel discouraged when I watch our elected officials, ostensibly the role models for democracy and civil debate, routinely choose to yell and point fingers rather than undertake the gritty work of actually improving the lives of regular people. I can’t help but sigh when I knock on someone’s door to talk to them about Joe Biden only to have it slammed in my face (after I’m berated for being a “commie SOB,” of course).

 

But the costs of giving into that discouragement, of letting that sigh become overwhelming, are too great. Everywhere we look, we’re faced with a new existential threat to the world as we know it—climate change, gun violence, a global pandemic—and the clock is ticking. Look, I’m no Pollyanna. I’m not particularly moved by vague notions of unity and national togetherness, and I don’t think we’ll ever all see eye to eye on everything. But our current trajectory has us barreling toward utter demise, and if we want to alter our course, we’re going to have to work together—to hear each other out, to generate beneficial epistemic friction.

 

On that Friday afternoon Zoom, I did a little bit of that: I learned something about the “other side.” And hey, who knows? Maybe Anscombe learned something from me, too. But at least we talked.

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