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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Opinion writing provides a powerful bully pulpit

<r year of high school, I applied for the position of opinion section editor with the intention of democratically bringing student voices to the foreground at my high school.

I got the position, perhaps because I was unopposed, and for the next two years I edited and wrote for the opinion section of the paper about issues I thought I knew something about.

Looking back, I was naive, often flagrantly so. My first opinion piece, written my sophomore year of high school, was a 900-word monstrosity discussing why the stock market is an artificially-inflated pyramid scheme with no basis in reality.

It was cut down to maybe 450 words and given the humorously patronizing title, “Put a Cap on Capitalism.” (Still, I regret nothing.)
My articles from high school were, by and large, embarrassments to me, or at least they are now, when I think back. Sometimes I wrote about issues I had no business having opinions of my own on, as when a teacher-moderator requested an “opposing viewpoints” segment on Black Lives Matter.

My co-writer and I refused to come out against BLM, so we effectively ended up with two versions of the same pro-BLM article. Still, I now believe we probably shouldn’t have written anything, because we were both non-black, affluent, naïve high school students who knew little about the world beyond what we read in the headlines.

What most strikes me about this episode is the fact that, despite our lack of any qualifications whatsoever, as high school students we were allowed, even entrusted, to have opinions about important issues.

People trust opinion writers. Often people vilify them, too, but more often than not, opinion writing is a source of gratification.
Whether we agree or disagree with the writer in question, reading their opinions tends to benefit us.

When we read people we agree with, we can nod our heads and smile and feel edified, and when we disagree with someone like Thomas Friedman or Victor Davis Hanson, we can pick apart their shoddily-constructed facades of arguments and strengthen our own viewpoints.

The fact that we give individual writers these bully pulpits is fraught with perilous implications, of course. Trusting a wealthy, white, teenage boy to write about Black Lives Matter and pass off his take as a legitimate perspective is generally not a good idea.

Yet often, this is effectively what opinion writing calls for. The world is filled with ideas, just waiting to have opinions to surround them, and not everyone enjoys sharing their views about those ideas. Often, it’s privileged folks like me who write the most opinion pieces.
This result, of course, leaves opinion writing severely lacking in important perspectives. The wealthy white man’s perspective is all too common in every walk of life already.

Opinion writing, I’ve come to realize, often exacerbates this trend by giving already-privileged voices (like mine) even more of a bully pulpit.

I mentioned at the beginning of this column that my goal as a high school junior editor was to provide a platform for student perspectives. In practice, that goal has proved difficult to achieve.

As Viewpoint editor, I often reach out to groups around campus to solicit their perspectives on our issues’ topics. Responses come only rarely. I understand this; Carleton is a busy place, after all, and people can’t be expected to take extra time out of their lives to write for a publication that’s often disrespected.

Still, I would like to take this opportunity to extend an invitation to the Carleton community.

We at the Viewpoint welcome the perspectives of students, faculty, and staff (so long as they’re not problematic, to borrow this college’s favorite word).

Opinion writing can be scary at first(I know it was for me, in large part because it’s so much more personal than any other form of journalism), but it’s also incredibly necessary.

From a purely self-interested perspective: if we don’t share our perspectives, how can we ever expect to convince people we’re right? How can we root out prejudices? How can we correct misconceptions?

People often respond best to personal stories. Hence the central role of opinion pieces, their power and their danger, in shaping public opinion on issues.

Carleton, like all institutions, is in desperate need of shaping. I don’t have to remind you all of the many structural prejudices and oppressions this school perpetuates. That’s a subject for another article or ten.

What I will say is, the Viewpoint can and does shape perspectives. I can think of at least a handful of times that people have told me stories we published resonated with them, and once one of our op-eds precipitated a meeting with Dean Livingston and President Poskanzer.

Words on a page can’t erase systems overnight, but they can provide a nice push. For me, knowing that makes opinion writing all worthwhile.

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