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Adrienne Langlois '10: Something to think about

Time to get meta. What's the opinions page for, anyway?

To summarize the words of many recent critics, not much. On March 15, the Washington Post's own blogger, Ezra Klein, criticized the policy of many newspapers (including the Post) of publishing commentaries from politicians and Washington insiders, noting that "with the rise of the Internet," politicians "can put their opinions online." Three days later, Andrew Sullivan of The Atlantic took Klein's argument further, calling it "a case for abolishing op-ed pages altogether. Before, of course, they abolish themselves by irrelevance."

Faced with the charge of irrelevancy from Sullivan and others, columnists, editorial writers and cartoonists are responding. In March, Milt Priggee, a syndicated editorial cartoonist, drew a provocative cartoon about the healthcare debate which ran online on Daryl Cagle's Political Cartoonists Index. The cartoon pictured an angry mob around a tree, marked as healthcare reform, with a noose dangling from its branch. Holding the other end of the rope, a man asks a member of the mob, "If this is Waterloo, then where is the (n-word)?"

The cartoon, which Priggee did not submit for print publication, received many comments debating the use of the controversial term, as well as Priggee's clear reference to racism in the healthcare debate. In response, Priggee wrote, "How can an editorial cartoon be too provocative when the very essence of an editorial cartoon is to provoke…?"

Indeed, provocation seems to be the name of the game among all commentators lately. On March 28, The Eagle, American University's campus newspaper, ran a column by sophomore Alex Knepper that responded to recent allegations of homophobia and sexism regarding a candidate for student body who had posted an online message with a jokey statement about getting "booty."

In the column, Knepper called the complainants, many of whom were members of feminist and gay rights groups, "a sniveling bunch of emotional cripples" and declared date rape to be "an incoherent concept." The column ended with the allegation that "feminists don't understand history, psychology, biology or sexuality."

In response, Women's Initiative, a campus feminist group, collected the hard copies of the newspaper and dumped them at the newspaper's office. A forum was organized to discuss the "Knepper question" as angry comments piled up on the column's online version.

The incident quickly made its way into the national media due to its volatility. Knepper was invited onto several television shows to explain his views. In columns for the Frum Forum and Newsbusters, Knepper grimly described the hostile treatment he received during his interviews, lamenting the "media storm" and sound bite culture that prevented him from expressing his opinions in full.

When angry comments, protests and interviews become the normal responses to commentary, something is clearly wrong with the system that disseminates it. Both Priggee and Knepper seem to recognize this as they criticize different aspects of the media, but they also contribute to the hostile environment with their own antagonistic tactics.

Clearly, fighting fire with fire isn't working. So should commentators stop being provocative? Not at all. I actually agree with Priggee's charge: The goal of all commentary should indeed be to provoke. Where we differ, however, is in my definition of the word "provoke." Far too many commentators — from cartoonists to columnists to pundits of all ages and backgrounds — have confused the need to provoke with a need to offend.

When commentators take that extra step beyond a controversial argument with a personal attack, vitriolic tone or controversial term, they cross the line from provocative to offensive. Crossing this line alienates many people whose opinions are relevant to the debates in which commentators seek to foster dialogue.

That's not to say that making an offensive argument doesn't leave any room for productive dialogue; in the aftermath of the media attention to both situations, both Knepper and Priggee have indeed sparked many less volatile conversations. But in their initial onslaughts, they sacrificed the potential to make a truly powerful argument.

Such an argument provokes without making personal attacks, without resorting to gross generalizations or hyperbole. It pushes, pulls and stretches the opinions of its readers, but never shoves. It makes its proponents nod instead of wince, and its opponents pause rather than immediately fire back. Most significantly, it is convincing, and it is precisely this quality which makes it far more subversive than a so-called "provocative" piece.

An argument that simply offends misses out on the opportunity to do what all commentators hope to do — to change the way people think. Yes, getting people with opposing opinions to respond to one another is an important step of the journey, but it's not the first step. The first goal of commentators should not be to make people talk, but think.

Returning to these goals will make all pieces, online and offline, more relevant and more useful. If we as commentators dedicate ourselves to making arguments that are more provocative in their ideas than in tone, we can save ourselves from irrelevance and give our readers — and ourselves — something much more valuable to think about.

Adrienne Langlois '10 knows some people may think she's a boring old fart, but quite frankly, doesn't care.



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