I’ve only been a columnist for a year and am not graduating, but nonetheless feel that some reflection is in order. Bear with me.
Over the year, I’ve written about everything from the Chicago Cubs to self-segregation at Penn. In the process, I’ve had the opportunity to work with some extremely passionate and talented people. While the experience has been rewarding in many ways, I think the most valuable part for me was meeting people who disagreed with me and were not afraid to say so. Whether via email, comments or a response column, people wrote about perceived shortcomings in my logic, argument and style throughout the year.
While such reaction is obviously natural, I found that it was still hard to receive criticism, especially when I never got the opportunity for a last word. Rarely in our lives do we receive such direct expressions of disapproval, in part because we tend to surround ourselves with people who are unlikely to do so. Even in our social, academic and professional interactions, we tend to be careful about such forms of speech lest we offend or hurt someone’s feelings. However, the anonymous nature of the internet means that people are less concerned about such matters.
One email sent from an anonymous address in response to an article I wrote on Donald Trump was titled “Poor Writing” and criticized my “vapid understanding of literature.” I was told: “Get your facts straight. Read and study more before you write.” Yikes. Tell me what you really think. This was on the more constructive side as far as criticism goes. Other fellow columnists, especially those whose works were picked up by bigger outlets, have sometimes faced racist and sexist comments.
Obviously, the latter holds little practical value. However, it is important to distinguish between such attacks and actual constructive criticism. It is much easier for us to dismiss all negative feedback as motivated by such irrational reasons, or by a lack of understanding. But that is precisely our job — to make people understand. This is perhaps the most difficult thing in life, to make people see things from perspectives that they are not familiar with. In order to do that, we should strive for empathy by considering all ideas and their values without prejudice or bias, even when others don’t afford us the same luxury.
Given the sensitive nature of many of my column topics and the tone expressed in my writing, feedback was unavoidable. Rationally, I understood this. However, I still found it difficult to receive such criticism, and found myself thinking about receiving such responses even before I had started writing. On some occasions, I decided not to write about certain issues or I changed the tone of my argument in order to avoid controversy. This was something that I didn’t expect at all before the year.
I titled my column “The Conversation” because I wanted to start discussions about the things I wrote on. I was surprised to find myself afraid of exactly that. Intellectual courage, like all courage, is easier talked about than attained in action.
However, I believe that this consideration was ultimately beneficial and even necessary. The ultimate purpose of all published writing is social — reading is an inherently interactive act. If I wanted to avoid criticism of all kinds, I would stick to writing in a diary. I’m sure that there are people who believe that I should do just that. Yet, it is precisely because of those dissenters — at least those who genuinely disagree on the issues — that opinionated writing is necessary and possible.
So to all who read and wrote, who engaged in this conversation with me, thank you. I am a stronger thinker and writer because of all of you. Even if we did not end up changing each other’s opinions, the ones we hold are more sound and valuable because they have encountered opposing ones. My genuine thanks to the haters — see you next semester.
JAMES LEE is a College junior from Seoul, South Korea, studying english and philosophy, politics and economics. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “The Conversation” usually appears every other Monday.