Early this month, I received one of the most glorious emails a writer could hope to receive: Will you, Ms. Kopp, submit an opinion piece to the Scroll?
Me? My opinion? Really? Why, yes, of course!
So, I sat down, opened my laptop, and guess what? I couldn’t think of a single thing to write. (You know that feeling, right?) It’s not that I don’t have opinions; the people closest to me will tell you just how much I love sharing my thoughts on everything from the best adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (no question: 1995, Colin Firth) to the very meaning of existence (42).
But when it comes to an op-ed piece, what could I write that would be meaningful? What opinion of mine might change your minds —and about what? After all, isn’t that the point of opinion pieces — to make an argument, to persuade, to get you to think about this or that topic just a little bit differently?
Persuasive writing is an important skill, and the free expression of opinions is the cornerstone of a free society. But as I struggled to write, I began to wonder: can opinion pieces really lead to meaningful change?
I sometimes fear that op-eds harden my pre-existing opinions. I find myself seeking out views that confirm what I already believe, and then, when confronted with ideas I don’t like, I want to fold up the paper, close the browser, turn off the radio. If I disagree strongly enough, my heart begins to pound, and my hands start to shake. I pour all my energy into rebutting each disagreeable point. I perform a twisted, wrongheaded version of our cultural competency skills: I read to respond, not to understand.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not advocating the end to op-ed pieces. (That would be a tad ironic, wouldn’t it?) I celebrate the desire of students, staff, and faculty to share their opinions in this paper. The conversations that come from these pieces can be incredibly significant, even if they are also incredibly difficult for our community.
Perhaps that’s really the point — it’s the conversation afterwards, the experience of seeing, hearing, speaking with another human about what X wrote in the Scroll or what Y posted on Facebook. The words of an opinion piece don’t change me; I change me, but only when I allow myself to engage actively with ideas that make me uncomfortable. In my case, that active engagement comes through conversation.
So what responsibility do I have, now that I’m both an op-ed writer and an op-ed reader? As a writer, I should not be afraid to share my opinions, no matter how unpopular they are, if I feel they can lead to productive conversation. To do that, I should use words that invite, rather than shut down, conversation. (I hope I have done that here.)
As a reader, I have to get out of my own head. I must read to understand and then seek out a perspective different from my own. I have to stop feeling defensive, as if I’m the one under attack, just because I disagree. Perhaps you, dear readers, can have that dialogue internally. But I need other people to help me reframe and empathize.
How lucky I am, then, to live in this community where conversation is always near at hand. Next year, when I’m roaming around the library, taking a break from writing silly novels, will you come find me? Or I’ll come find you, but don’t worry, it won’t be to criticize or attack. I’ll ask you why you believe what you believe, and I’ll do my best to listen, really listen. Then you can ask me, “Why Colin Firth?”, and we can all live happily… well, all right, maybe not. I don’t believe in happily-ever-afters, but I do believe change is possible, one awkward conversation at a time.