I often feel apologetic when I tell people that I am an opinion columnist for the News. The opinion pages, so the narrative goes, are where first years repeat trite nothings and out-of-touch conservatives pontificate. I am a little sheepish when I reveal my commitment to this page because it can be a forum for ideas that are repeated or condescending, representative of a larger campus discourse that upholds platitudes about what a good life is or pushes back against a paper-doll caricature of leftism. Despite all this, the opinion page is also the most read.
Over the past few months, a national conversation has been playing out over what a newspaper opinion section ought to be, and what sorts of editorial pieces publications should print, and, therefore, amplify. The beginning of that conversation can perhaps be attributed to the hiring of James Bennet at The New York Times. Bennet, the editorial page editor, quickly began to bring writers on board who were different from the paper’s typical center-left tone and readership. His first hire, Bret Stephens, provoked outrage from readers when he urged readers to be more skeptical of climate change activists in his first column.
The furor over Stephens was quickly followed by repeated uproars over the writing and tweets of his fellow former Wall Street Journal opinion page writer Bari Weiss. Weiss positions herself as a liberal fed up with the excesses of the far left, particularly on college campuses — conveniently ignoring that she herself attempted to silence professors for being insufficiently pro-Israel while she was a student at Columbia University.
Leah Finnegan, writing in the online magazine the Outline, characterizes this genre of opinion writing, as “trolling,” a phrase more familiar in the context of misspelled tweets and unmoderated comment section than about the paper of record. “They’re not seeking to upend established, calcified viewpoints,” says Finnegan, “but deliberately instigating anger and spreading disinformation in an insincere attempt to ‘show both sides.’” Weiss in particular has savored being attacked on Twitter, portraying herself as a martyr whose good intentions are being deliberately twisted. A refusal to listen to those you’ve hurt with your prominent platform, though, does not demonstrate good intentions.
I grew up in a home where the Wall Street Journal greeted me on the breakfast table every day. Even as a high schooler I had politics that were different than those of my parents, but I did occasionally flip through to the opinion section. It was rare that I agreed with anything I read. What struck me, though, was that every writer seemed to know whom they were speaking to. They were not writing to agitate readers they assumed would disagree with them, but rather putting forth arguments for the community of conservatives to consider.
What makes Bret Stephens’ questioning of climate change assumptions “trolling” is not the argument, per se, but rather its context; for James Bennet to publish it for the Times’ readership when Stephens was a new hire failed to take seriously that for any columnist to have the power to persuade, they need to be trusted. Stephens in that context was completely untrustworthy, and there was no reason to assume that he wrote in good faith rather than to poke at the liberals he had been criticizing for so long. So too, Weiss’s insistence that she is a put-upon liberal while failing to listen to those whose politics she claims to share is “trolling” because her refusal to hear her critics makes it hard to believe that she is someone just trying to better the world.
To push from outside some sort of cohesive community, or to act as if one is above the community they write for degrades a writer’s impact. This is not an effective way to be heard and to build a vibrant conversation about how we should live our lives and shape our world. Good opinion columnists see themselves as pushing a community that they trust to hear them, one that they are a part of. This can be a political community, an ideological one, even one of circumstance. Trust and good faith are key: Writing to challenge is not the same as writing to antagonize.
We have a unique opportunity at Yale: We know exactly who we are addressing when we write in campus publications. What would it look like if we wrote in a way that assumed each person on our campus is smart and well intentioned? What would it look like to push each other with the goal of creating a stronger community, rather than pushing each other over in order to score intellectual points?
Avigayil Halpern is a junior in Siliman College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .