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Why are you reading this?

| Monday, December 9, 2019

This past week, Mary Szromba published a column entitled “Prepare to vote for the ham sandwich,” arguing for the importance of party unity in the midst of a contentious Democratic primary. While I found this argument to be extremely reasonable, well-thought out and delivered with nuance, the battleground of Facebook comments did not agree.

There were many people who shared thoughtful opinions about who they planned to vote for, what motivates their vote choice and why or why not avoiding a second Trump presidency is the most important element of this upcoming election. Many people disagreed with Mary’s piece, but still respected the legitimacy of her opinion. However, there were others who completely wrote off Mary’s opinion and perspective for the mere factor of her age.

One commenter in particular stated, “Mary, you are entitled to your opinion not matter [sic] how idiotic and divorced from reality it is. Get a job, pay taxes, raise and support a family – then you just might have a proper perspective of life.”

In response to a question from another Facebook user, this commenter clarified that he did indeed mean that Mary’s opinion (and vote) were not properly informed.

I guess my first question to anyone who holds that opinion would be why you would waste your time reading the viewpoint section of a student newspaper. Obviously, the vast majority of us are current students who have not yet entered the workforce, nor have we raised and supported families of our own. It seems like an odd cost-benefit analysis that would lead someone to take the time to read carefully crafted opinions from people whose personal identity automatically disqualifies them from holding a well-informed opinion in the first place.

If this disqualification of the legitimacy of her opinion applies to Mary, why doesn’t it apply to every other columnist who writes for The Observer, liberals and conservatives alike? I have a suspicion that if a conservative columnist published a column, there wouldn’t be a similar critique from those users. It’s incredibly dangerous to immediately write off the opinions of those we disagree with as uninformed or illegitimate because of the someone’s age or experience.

I could just as well argue that many of the people in Congress are too old to understand the realities of college student debt — but what good would that do?

I don’t mean to singularly attack one particular alumnus and Facebook user. This commenter is certainly not the only one who holds these beliefs and uses them as an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of the opinion of the youth. If this was the only comment or engagement I had seen of this type, I would never write about it in the first place.

But I think this is indicative of a much more prevalent issue in society today: an uptick in activism among the younger generations has led to a complete denial of the legitimacy of their opinions by older generations. Students who protested the presence of Vice President Mike Pence at graduation by conducting a quiet walk out were disregarded and told they weren’t ready for the real world. After all, you “can’t walk out on your boss when you disagree with them.”

I believe part of the mission of Notre Dame is to create well-informed citizens who should exercise their right to freedom of speech to inform our democratic discourse. This can mean writing for The Observer, protesting parietals, engaging in class discussions with students you don’t agree with — the list goes on.

Why are we discouraging young people from developing and exercising their opinions? Mary is probably one of the most well-informed people I know. Even though I don’t always agree with her opinions, I at least respect them as well-informed and valid.

Would we rather produce a student body rushing forward to the real world, but delay their ability to form and argue for their beliefs? It seems unfathomable that anyone from any generation would want to dissuade someone from sharing their opinions in such a civil way by creating an impossible-to-fulfill threshold for validity.

Engagement with readership is important and it’s something that I expect as a columnist. I write for The Observer because I want to share my opinions and hear people’s reactions to what I have to say. Some of my favorite emails that I receive are the ones telling me I’m a total idiot, I’m wrong and the future of America is doomed by my generation and those who think like I do. I have always appreciated that people had taken the time to read what I had to say, even if they think I’m wrong. However, it’s saddening that there seem to be an increasing number of people who read what I have to say, but would never engage with it as a valid opinion in the first place.

Maybe my opinions will vastly change in the next 10 to 15 years (I doubt it), but I don’t think that means that the opinions I hold today are in some way illegitimate. I guess once my fellow columnists and I are able to tick those boxes — working a full-time job, generating enough income to pay taxes to the federal government and raising children — we will finally be able to stand behind what we write since those factors automatically lend to some imaginary credibility. Can’t wait!

Jackie O’Brien is a Notre Dame senior studying political science and peace studies, originally from the Chicago suburbs. When she’s not writing for Viewpoint, you can find her attempting to complete the NYT crossword, fretting over law school applications or watching RuPaul’s Drag Race. She can be reached at [email protected] or @im_jackie_o on Twitter.

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

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