For the first time in a year, I’m on the other side of this page, a columnist again after serving as opinion editor. I’ve watched currents of conversation and controversy sweep through Yale, and I’m retiring with a patina of appreciation for the opinion page. What was that too-true quote, that newspapers are the secular man’s bible? It’s the closest thing we have to a literary agora, one of the most universal parts of Yale’s daily life, for better or for worse.
But I am also returning with a central frustration — namely, the continued lack of diversity on the page, be that intellectual, racial, gendered or otherwise. The central issue — the obvious weight that the voices an armada of white men flitting across the page carry — is actually a symptom of a larger problem. Namely, the form of an opinion column itself is a bastardization of our best avenues of communication because it doesn’t allow for truly nuanced argument or conversation.
We once told all interested columnists that they should use a “why-because” form to write their column. For example: “Why does the opinion page have such a problem with diversity?” Answer: “Because the way we are expected to write columns is argumentative rather than nurturing.” Simple — a single question, a single answer. That “why-because” form is constricted and tied to a very specific transference of knowledge that comes out of one continent, one dialogue. I’m starting to doubt its utility, at least in its bloviating contemporary iteration. The infrastructure of an opinion column cannot support the subtlety and empathy required to increase either the author or the public’s understanding, but it’s the progeny of a form that once could.
For a column actually has thoughtful discursive roots. In Jewish thought, Talmudic debates spin webs across centuries and centuries of texts and rabbis pull apart their convictions in a multicontinental conversation. In the Buddhist tradition, polemical texts trace complicated geometries of logic and conclusion, the origins of rationalist, public debate. In Greek thought, in the aforementioned agora, citizens would come to stake claims and then unravel them. The best stuff we’ve got comes from the best arguments our ancestors had, their nuance almost erotic in its intellectual uplift.
That’s the birthplace of the anemic thing we now call “debate.” In the offspring of these ceiling-shaking, age-defining, rights-granting arguments, we’re sniping at each other rather than trying to nurture thought. Today’s column is a form of winning, a way to promote your own ideas rather than a form of consideration.
And, perhaps, this is the central reason that the opinion page is a soapbox for such a specific sliver of Yale’s undergraduate community. Sometimes, the page shines with real compassion and intellectual integrity. But sometimes, the columns fail to communicate in a way that could actually do anything at all. So the people who write for the page, myself included, are the people who already assume that their voices will be heard.
It’s important to draw a distinction here. I am not hostile to argument itself. I actually think that some of the most successful conversations that occurred during my tenure as editor came from authors voicing perspectives contrary to my own. But I’m frustrated by the volume of authors coached in this debate form who don’t do the heavy intellectual lifting required to try to introduce a new perspective into a Yale-wide conversation. These people are, overwhelmingly, white men — and those suffering from Directed Studies withdrawal syndrome. With this argumentative form in their arsenals, they assume without question that the space of these pages (and thus, the space of Yale’s most public consistent conversation) belongs to them.
Luckily, the “why-because” form is not the only, nor even close to the best, way of using this form. Testimonials, I think, are. That’s what people remember, and that’s what fosters the best conversations. Columns that offer a “this is what it’s been like to be me” are the columns that I have been most proud to publish. With the vulnerability of sharing a story comes the empathy of those who receive it. And thus, behaviors really can and do change.
There are ways to argue that aren’t debate, and those ways are much, much more successful.
The task of the next opinion editors and next group of columnists is twofold. First, to encourage more people to try their hand at writing. But second, to present many, many more ways that one could consider making a useful argument. Why? Because. That’s why.
Amelia Nierenberg is a senior in Timothy Dwight College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.