The most common criticism I receive about my columns goes something like this: “Aaron, you make good arguments, but you use such charged language to make them that you don’t convince anybody who doesn’t already agree with you. So what’s the point?”
Or, put a tad less analytically; “Aaron, you’re a smart guy. But you’re also an asshole.”
It’s a fair point.
I do mock, deride and name-call more often than most, especially if I think someone deserves it. And I harbor no delusions about what this entails. People don’t like to be told they’re wrong, and they like even less to be told they’re crazy or craven. Hurt feelings produce rolled eyes, and rolled eyes produce haughty, high-minded solipsism.
So, why sacrifice converts for quips?
The first thing to note about this criticism is the assumption that opinion columnists write to persuade and to persuade only. To be sure, columnists do care about persuasion, but persuasion of a very particular sort. Very few columnists, I would wager, have ever changed somebody’s mind about anything of real significance in 800 words. What they do instead is generate arguments for public consumption. The best columnists do not simply opine on pressing controversies of the day; they slowly construct coherent narratives and ideologies, inch by inch, column by column, with an eye toward the long haul. These incrementalist projects are best understood not as moves in a debate, but as foundations of the public sphere. Opinion journalists provide engaged parties with a stock of views from which to choose, not conclusive reasons for choosing one view or the other.
Converts, then, are won through the construction of compelling ideological “brands” — public, digestible systems of thought that explain the world and offer recommendations for improving it. This branding must, of course, be marketable, and abrasive rhetoric can reduce market share. But not by much. Most Marxists do not ever become conservatives, or vice versa, no matter what they read. Columnists should thus focus their attention on the relatively small group of moderates who have not already made up their minds about important questions — the sorts of people I typically avoid insulting! By contrast, I worry less about offending the campus left or the religious right, because neither group is likely to take anything I say to heart no matter how I say it.
Most columnists also care about something I call “idea formation”: demonstrating how certain widely shared premises lead to urgent and unexpected conclusions about hot-button issues. In other words, they create new ideas out of existing ones. A good example of idea formation was Scott Stern’s ’15 column, “A moral responsibility” (April 16, 2015), which argued that if you believe finance and consulting hurt the economy, you can’t also believe your friends are doing nothing wrong at their Goldman Sachs internships. These sorts of arguments don’t widen a columnist’s base, but they do strengthen it, rectifying inconsistencies and demonstrating the brand’s practical implications for the real world.
Persuasion and idea formation, however, both require the columnist to have a cogent vision of his own. That’s where quips come in: brand loyalty. To survive in the public sphere, ideas and ideologies must command a degree of popular support and acclamation. Enter “rally the base” columns — columns that invoke group-specific standards of cheerleading and bad-mouthing to boost morale. For centrist and conservative columnists, this means using phrases like “liberal order,” “marketplace of ideas” and “cultural Marxism” to pillory leftists. For leftists, it means launching missives against “systemic oppression,” “gender essentialism” and “fragile masculinity” to pillory conservatives. Fierce, fiery rhetoric safeguards the columnist’s Weltanschauung against the crowded caprice of the public sphere, preserving — if not always expanding — his ideological base.
These three objectives — persuasion, idea formation and brand loyalty — form a trilemma. The more jabs the columnist throws, the harder it is for him to win over those sympathetic to his competitors. But the more muted his prose, the more he runs the risk of his brand being lost in the fray. And the more time he spends persuading or rallying, the less time he has to work out the implications of his views.
My own preference is for idea formation and brand loyalty, at least at the News. Undergraduate defenders of the liberal order (see what I did there?) are often inconsistent and prone to red herrings, and this makes it difficult to counter the excesses of campus Bolshevism. Without a coherent, viable alternative to leftist identity politics, I have no doubt that P.C. Potemkins will continue to trample over liberalism and liberal education.
But to carve out space for such an alternative, it is sometimes necessary to philosophize and provoke in the same breath. If a few asinine witticisms are the price I pay for keeping my “brand” alive, so be it.
Aaron Sibarium is a junior in Timothy Dwight College. He is a former Opinion Editor for the News. His column usually runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at email@example.com .