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What makes a good Viewpoint?

Observer Viewpoint | Wednesday, December 7, 2005

This is the last edition of The Observer that will be published this calendar year. Therefore, despite the fact that there are several issues of significance that could (and should, and in the case of the Vatican’s new Instruction, which merits rather more analysis than I can give it in one week’s time, will) be drawing my attention, I have opted instead to set aside these troubles and pursue a little end-of-the-year reflection.

After only a few weeks of reading The Observer, it is not difficult to tell that every columnist in this paper has a slightly different methodology when it comes to choosing topics. It is possible, however, to lump us into a couple of general categories.

There are the reactionary columnists, who get most of their material from watching CNN or parsing the opinions of others, and who try to ride the brief waves of anger or interest that surrounds a piece of breaking news. The value of this type of writing is measured by the number of people who begin to care about, or at least react to, the issue in question. However, the biggest problem with this tactic is that the ultimate value of a columnist’s words depends largely on factors beyond her control. It is easy to miss your mark while riding the waves of public opinion.

At the polar opposite of this style lie the static columnists. They pick a single, narrow area, such as politics, ethics or liberal shock proclamations, and over the course of a year proceed to pound it to death. Static columnists, I think, view themselves more as preachers than anything, but from the point of view of most everyone else they are just really, really irritating. The hallmark of this style is a column that emerges from nowhere, and has almost nothing to due with either contemporary issues or the present state of campus, and indeed is useless to almost everyone.

Behind each of these schools of thought lies a distinct perception of what an opinion column is supposed to be. Static columnists write foremost for themselves (or their ideologies), to express their own views and moreover to sway people to them. Reactionary columnists write in the hopes of stirring up a hornet’s nest of replies and thereby gaining some notoriety, or at least a sense of accomplishment.

Unfortunately neither of these styles provides any real value to the column’s readers, who, especially in an intellectually and politically charged environment such as Notre Dame, cannot be herded like sheep. Indeed, both of these styles ultimately do a disservice to the community of readers and to the community of writers.

If the columnist recognizes the flaws in these, the two most popular schools of thought, then she will focus less on providing an opinion column for herself, and more on uncovering those actual services that only she, through her words, is in a position to provide. For the columnist, above all else, must serve her readers by giving them something that stark journalism, however valuable, can never supply.

There can be many faces to this service. Some of the most significant are the columnist’s honesty (which is a great weapon, for many people do not know how to deal with it), her perspective and her unique pool of human experiences, though all of these must be mitigated by the firm realization that the vast majority of her opinions are, in fact, only of interest to her and to her bedfellows. This is a disappointing but unavoidable truth, and a sign of maturity as a writer to recognize it.

Above all else, the columnist who understands these things realizes that she is in the privileged position of expressing reality, articulated and yet naked, to those who may have forgotten what it looks like, and thus has the difficult but critical job of saying not what she wishes to say, but rather that which must be said. Thus, the columnist who serves the reader is persuasive, but only insofar as the truth itself is persuasive, and is mocking, but only insofar as perspective shows something that deserves being mocked and is emotional, but only insofar as experience shows that emotion is essential.

As one professor once explained to me, discussion – honest, open, brutal, intimate, truthful and painful – is the origin of all change. It is also the seat of all empathy. It is a great honor, therefore, to be able to serve discussion for its own sake, and to lead you further into it.

Lance Gallop is a 2005 graduate of Notre Dame. More of his work can be found at www.tidewaterblues.com.

He can be contacted at comments@tidewaterblues.com.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.