The opinion section of the News frequently comes under fire from those eager to snipe at sources of prejudice and intolerance within the campus community. For every article that draws public ire, there are five comments on “Overheard at Yale” echoing the same sentiment: “What else did you expect from the Yale Daily News?” Recent critiques have contended that columnists, bent on championing their own views, tend to unduly favor argument while sacrificing thoughtful communication. To prevent such chauvinists from tyrannizing the opinion page, the opinion desk should instead solicit pieces that will appeal to readers by incorporating vulnerable, sympathetic personal narratives.
Yet Yale’s most visible and enduring conversations, far from being purely logical debate, are dominated by arguments made from personal narrative. Testimonials make up a great deal of the material that we regularly consume and circulate, in the form of editorials, think pieces and Facebook rants. In a society coming to terms with competing discourses on identity politics, they are increasingly valued as a way to gain clarity about others’ experiences.
At least, it would be nice if testimonials were considered so holistically. The typical approach to testimonials, as we can readily see from responses to News columns, rarely challenges or revises one’s beliefs about others. Instead, testimonials are selectively read and validated, contributing to an arsenal of evidence with which one can further reinforce already deep-seated assumptions. The expected response to testimonial — empathy — cannot exist when the presumed narratives that exist in our own heads eclipse the complicated, unpredictable experiences lived by others.
In the rush to find alternatives to what has been perceived as elitist, hyper-rationalist debate, these questions have been entirely neglected: Who is allowed to have and use personal narratives? Who is privileged enough to be able to disclose a vulnerable story to the public and benefit from it? And what do we lose once we start demanding that personal narrative meet a standard of credibility?
The involuntary preference given to testimonial pieces — already in vogue at Yale — crudely ignores a person’s right to privacy or desire for personal integrity. Needing to convince more effectively, a writer may struggle against the pressure to expose an intimate story, reduced to an anecdotal body paragraph, to the unreliable reading and misjudgments of others. This value system implicitly asks writers to dramatize and divulge to produce something more relatable — simply to be believed. Even the supposed nuance afforded by a personal narrative may be insufficient for the most urgent and thoughtful argument, especially when it depends on an open-minded readership.
And even if you do decide to wield the first-person pronoun, the idea that testimonial favors certain identities over others makes it clear that we have predetermined notions of who is qualified to use narrative. White men in particular — but also, as we have seen at Yale, LGBTQ people and people of color — who dare offer personal evidence to support an unpopular argument gain little credibility, no matter what other identities they have. Any personal insight they might have in subjects such as depression, poverty or even emotional vulnerability is invalidated, simply because their conclusions fail to conform to popular belief. Beyond the obvious price of revealing sensitive information on a public forum, to be disregarded anyway is an even worse outcome.
Opinion pieces will likely be most beneficial when they actually break down the artificial divide between “argument” and “narrative.” Personal stories should be treated not as a trump card, but rather as a deliberate way to ground an argument in experience. At the same time, we shouldn’t refuse to engage with pieces just because they choose not to use a narrative. When people dangerously believe that certain narratives must supersede argument, they deny some the opportunity to use their stories to advocate for unusual or ignored problems. Simultaneously, they force others to go public with narratives they are uncomfortable sharing, which they should not need in order to justify a valid argument they are making.
For me, the columns that have been most difficult to write have involved wrestling with the pressure to use personal narrative in a controversial argument. On topics such as sexual modesty and race, I have felt the urge to deliver personal proof of my convictions and to rework messy and emotionally distressing stories as confessionals. But rarely do I answer this call out of fear for my own privacy. Now, the suggestion that I should exchange my vulnerability for the empathy and belief of my readership strikes me as highly disorienting.
The opinion page should welcome the opportunity to address identity politics in as many forms as possible. There are always better ways to debate, but they do not start with your feeling entitled to anyone’s narrative. And especially not in under eight hundred words.
Sherry Lee is a senior in Ezra Stiles College. Her column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .