When I used to be a columnist for The Daily Pennsylvanian, I was annoyed by the fact that college newspapers put you in an awkward position of having to talk about students while still being one. There’s nothing like disagreeing with someone in print that could be living in your hall.
I’ve had my fare share of debates in my columns on Greek-life, student government and campus administration. The phone calls, long e-mails and anxious in-person confrontations that would follow were endless. But that’s what I signed up for, and I became a stronger columnist because of it.
What I have noticed over the past week with the back and forth debates surrounding race and censorship in the DP is that we have forgotten what a columnist is.
For one, you don’t directly represent anyone but yourself when writing. If you screw up, you will be responsible — not your entire race or cultural group.
I’ve read too many talks about who belongs and doesn't belong to particular communities — that’s toxic and unhealthy bullying that silences original thoughts and democratic ideas. When you write, you can and should invoke the experiences of people you can relate with. However, you’re never obligated to speak on behalf of a community in its entirety as if it’s a monolith.
When you try to speak on behalf of “the (insert any racial, spiritual, or cultural) community at Penn,” that’s narrow and groupthink talk that creates assumptions that’ll put you in contention with those who don’t agree. Instead, don’t hide behind communities and their presumed thoughts — speak your personal truth and own it.
Back then, my columns were often contrary to a large chunk of communities within the campus’s LGBTQ and black social scene … but that was fine because I was speaking on behalf of myself, and not them. Owning your words and speaking for yourself is more powerful than trying to assume the role of everyone.
Lastly, let’s be mindful of how we assess damages and offences of those we don’t agree with. Too often, columnists can be lazy in doing what I call “the historical sentencing” of opposition — an unbalanced injecting of past history as a way of condemning the present issue/topic being debated.
No, one is not an oppressor of an entire race if they disagree with one aspect of it. We need to really push back on how we assess guilt and blame in writing because it will fall on deaf ears when they become hyperboles rather than sincere grievances.
Which brings me lastly to the point of censorship. The press doesn’t owe anyone a damn thing except the truth and a balanced opportunity for those to negate it. As a now-professional columnist, when I write my opinions, my publication doesn’t endorse them as a brand — they allow me to have my free speech.
There are current columnists at my publication that I don’t always agree with, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t cease to exist. Again, as long as such opinions aren’t hate speech or threatening my life (literally, because I know how many of you will run with that) then they're fair game like my column is.
To be frank, all of you at Penn need to check your own damn privilege. Sure, such privilege is unbalanced across the board, but all of you Quakers are in realities that aren’t as oppressive and circumstantial as the rest Philadelphia. So stop acting as if it is, because some of these columns read like historical fiction rather than real life experiences that bare some depth.
I’m not policing one’s right to free speech, but asking that all of you get better at speaking on behalf of yourselves and not everyone else. It’s your column. Own it.
ERNEST OWENS is a 2014 College graduate and former columnist and video producer for The Daily Pennsylvanian. He currently resides in Philadelphia as a columnist/reporter for Metro Philly.Comments powered by Disqus
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