Three years on the Spectator opinion page teaches you a lot about what language and style resonates most with readers. In the many semesters that I have spent putting my thoughts on the page—first in my column “Opening Remarks” and then as a regular contributor to the Canon—I have come to understand the value of communicating in a way that consciously avoids alienating language.
Coming to Columbia as a conservative, I was told that my matriculation amounted to infiltration into enemy territory. My friends’ parents would take me aside and suggest that maybe I shouldn’t attend Columbia, given that it might poison my Southwestern values. Joining the College Republicans, I saw the language of “us vs. them” being reinforced. I was told that as someone to the right of center, I was a persecuted minority, a victim, and the underdog trying to disarm a system working against me. Faced with this narrative, I adopted a defensive stance, ready to call foul on any pernicious liberalism coming my way.
This mentality was proven unproductive. By the time I took to the opinion page, I had befriended many students who would fall under the category of “radical liberal” and found that they were not, in fact, out to get me. To the contrary, they responded well when I presented my ideas in a way that used common vocabulary, demonstrated a willingness to learn, and employed questions—not prescriptions—as a primary driver of ideas. These respectful practices produced fruitful conversations even between members of two extremes.
Having discovered this, I used my column to be the “opening remarks” to a larger conversation. With questions acting as the starting block for a discussion, my opinion pieces attempted to get the students to consider some of the conflicts and tensions that I saw simmering around campus. I aimed at the fundamental questions—the forks in the road that most students had not thought about because the path had seemed so clear and full of consensus that the decision had not seemed worth making. Is the concept of “open-mindedness” flawed? On what do we base our identities? Is moral relativism a given? Is the secular classroom really a healthy environment for ideas? How do we create sustained political discourse? What is a truly “safe space”? Do professors know what’s best for us? Do we have a moral obligation to return home after graduation? Is there such thing as a “calling” or life purpose? What does it mean for Columbia to be an American university?
By asking questions and being clearly respectful, a writer can undermine the “us vs. them” mentality that is responsible for much of the conflict we see in the public sphere today. If a reader feels that a writer is caricaturing her point of view, using language that betrays a sense of superiority, or approaching the topic presumptuously, she will stop considering the ideas behind the words. That only aggravates the alienation of ideological conflict. The act of eliminating these factors cuts through superficiality and cultivates an atmosphere in which both sides feel that there are no “stakes” or fights to lose in the discussion. It becomes what these conversations should be: an exchange of ideas based on their merit not their reputation.
To the future opinion writers at Spectator and, more broadly, the participants of intellectual discourse on this campus, I have some advice. Do not turn your ideological opposites into your ideological opponents. Meet the people you disagree with and befriend them. Learn what irks them and avoid those things while still communicating your ideas. There are so many ways to voice your opinion with passion without losing the ear of your listener—it’s worth the effort to learn how to do that. You won’t be the only one who benefits. The whole community will too.
The author is a Columbia College senior majoring in political science and anthropology. He was an opinion columnist for the 133rd, 134th, and 135th volumes, a member of the Editorial Board for the 135th volume, an opinion blogger, and a Canon contributor for the 136th volume.