What is the purpose of an opinion column?
“To bear witness and provoke thought,” claims Llewellyn King, PBS host and nationally-syndicated columnist.
“To offer an opinion,” says Bret Stephens, an opinion writer for The New York Times who ostensibly reaches the heart of the question.
To “stoke interesting conversation,” wrote my former editor, Amelia Nierenberg ’18, in an August letter to the News’ returning staff columnists. “Try to strike a sweet spot between super incendiary pieces and super reflective ones,” she wrote.
This page has not always lived up to those lofty principles, and the answer to our question has strayed from the noble ideas of King, Stephens and Nierenberg. At Yale, a written opinion gains traction and purpose if it achieves one of three things:
1. It establishes the author’s intellectual superiority through complexity of language.
We don’t even need to open the News to observe this — stop by any 12-student seminar and hone in on the one person who hasn’t done the reading: Hint, the quality of their diction far exceeds the quality of their thoughts. “Never use a long word where a short one will do,” writes George Orwell, but columnists often sacrifice concise communication in a rush for the thesaurus. I could bloviate for hours on the exigent demand for clarity of thought in a society that is experiencing sharp vicissitudes of rectitude. But what’s the point? At Yale, hyper-intellectualism is king.
2. It re-entrenches the readers in their own opinions.
More than anything else, we love hearing that we’re right. A strong affirmation of our beliefs excuses us from having to challenge ourselves and allows us to pat the author on the back with generosity and grace: “You worded this far better than I ever could have.”
3. It takes a stance that is perceived as so ludicrous, as so absurd, as so distasteful, that everyone on campus (and beyond) has to read it and take it upon themselves to right the moral wrongs of the columnist.
It’s no coincidence that the most shared columns are the most controversial ones. The shares are accompanied by pithy expressions of distaste, a couple of which I have taken the liberty to quote directly from my news feed: “somebody come collect this person before i eat them,” “Ummmmmm dare I say … “what?!”
In sum, a column is popular only if it is snooty, obsequious or outlandishly controversial. The desire for readers and reactions and responses engulfs the obligation to basic tenets of opinion writing: conducting exhaustive research, presenting both sides of an argument, teaching the reader something new. Columnists no longer try to convince — instead, they try to impress, mollify and, occasionally, horrify.
But writers are only as relevant as their readers make them, and readers are complicit in the dilution of the daily column. How many columns have you and your peers read this week other than “ROBERTS: Empathy for the privileged” (Oct. 2, 2017)? There have been comments on Pogge and printing, dental care and DACA, loneliness and looking ahead. Yet, it is the most universally-panned column that has reached the greatest number of readers: As of this writing, Roberts’ piece sits at 2177 shares.
If nuanced and fair thought has become too boring to garner a mass readership, is it surprising that there are writers who abandon it as they seek to make names for themselves? If you want people to talk about an issue that really matters to you, the best way is to take an extreme and disagreeable stance. And the temptation to bend your morals to elicit a response is not a trivial one.
It’s a temptation I have faced while drafting every column I have written for the past two years. I have experienced firsthand the rush that comes with having my work being talked about, debated, shared on Overhead at Yale and disagreed with. I can empathize with the writer who desires the same rush.
But I refuse to accept that my purpose as a writer is to be shared on Overheard and to generate attention. My purpose is to convince others to agree with me — whether it be one Yalie or 100. As readers, we have the responsibility to reward balanced thought. As writers, we have the responsibility to produce it.
Mrinal Kumar is a senior in Silliman College. His column runs on alternate Thursdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.