One of opinion writing’s greatest boons is its straightforward process: you sit in front of a blank Word document, sift through some articles across the Internet and gather your thoughts for a while until they resemble something vaguely coherent.
You do it all without ever having to leave the comforts of your dorm room. Unlike beat reporting, my sources are only a few clicks away and available at any time of the day. I have the freedom to decide both what I write and, largely, how I’ll write it. At times, opinion writing has seemed so smooth and self-sufficient it leaves me with an eerie, if unearned, sense of power. Just think: this piece, typed up sometime during the late hours of the night, now published and memorialized on the Internet forever. It’s a privilege to let my 700-word ramblings earn their own section on a newspaper publication.
But this opinion piece also shares the same cyberspace with Twitter firestorms and random blog entries. It’s a thought among millions of others, many of which include hot takes and questionable stances scrawled across shadowy corners. There are arguments that aim for provocation instead of persuasion, claims that prize controversy over common sense. We often don’t need to look any further beyond our daily news feeds to find them.
I have nothing against Socratic discussion, but launching inflammatory arguments for the sake of playing Devil’s Advocate is both unproductive and destructive. Yet so much of our discourse these days seems to be just that; to go against the grain is the ultimate mark of macho contrarianism. To have an opinion is to spout broad, blanketing beliefs — truth be damned — and refuse any admission of error. The bigger and bolder, the better. In many ways, we’re a culture that rewards pigheadedness, megaphones, spite. Novelty is a path to attention, and any attention is better than nothing at all.
As Yale students, we’re often just as guilty as our pundits and politicians. Aren’t we all self-assured, cocksure and confident in our own powers? Haven’t we all been guilty at some point of arrogantly overreaching our claims in a seminar or spreading our generalizations a bit too far? We’re great at delivering arguments with big, fancy words, but not as great at calling out our own mistakes.
That’s the danger: when we stretch our opinions and let them run off the tracks of truth, we end up attacking reality. Arguments that don’t respect the facts defeat the purpose of meaningful discussion. They drown their opponents before even giving them a chance to respond.
What does it mean to have an opinion in a world that’s been garbled by soundbites and pure noise? I look back at the millions who have lost their lives over the past two years even as the closest thing we have to a silver bullet sat right under their noses. Over 36 percent of all Republicans running for government positions this fall have repudiated the very democratic processes they are engaged in. Air itself has even developed a kind of uncanny sentience: “Our good air [decides] to float over to China’s bad air,” until “their bad air got to move.” What we choose to say — and, equally, how we say it — matters more than ever, because our words have real-world consequences that can’t be entirely divorced from our seminar rooms or Twitter feeds.
Open discourse is important. Like all things, you can devote entire lifetimes to a subject and still hardly scratch the surface. But meaningful discourse requires civility. It can only happen when we are willing to engage with each other’s ideas, when we have weighed our arguments with careful thought and humility before sending them out into the world. Those who cry for intellectual freedom but never try to actually understand the world only twist the name of free speech to fit their own gimmicky ends. The right to productive debate isn’t always the right to monologic ranting — we need more voices and less clamoring.
There’s plain-faced platitude. There’s insightfulness. And then there’s recklessness. Navigating my way among them these past few years has been much harder than I imagined. Not all my opinions have been particularly revelatory, electrifying or even defendable. I won’t get everything right — I might not have anything right — but I’m open to learning.
This is my first column of the year. I haven’t found enough things yet to grumble about, and I’m only now beginning to remember the hours I’ve sometimes spent staring at a blank Word document, thinking of things to write about. After all, there’s only so much you can say. I’ll be okay with that, though. We often don’t need a hot take for everything because, usually, a simple observation is enough.