Opinions haven’t always gotten a good rap. Some 300 years ago, Voltaire argued that they’ve “caused more trouble on this little earth than plagues or earthquakes.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement.
Today, moms everywhere channel Voltaire when they scold their children to keep their opinions to themselves. Pundits rail every day against journalists who lay bare their subjectivity and scream their opinions on television. The Baltimore Sun’s David Zurawik has even gone so far as to prophesy that with the rise of unmitigated opinion will come the fall of democracy.
Now I don’t mean the kind of blind dogmatism and intractable extremism which pervade too much of our society and our airwaves today. Zurawik and the other pundits are right to raise red flags about Glenn Beck and Ed Schultz. Their refusal to compromise – or to even hear an opposing view, for that matter – does nothing positive for our democracy and does nothing to enhance our discourse. “Too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion,” President Kennedy once said, “without the discomfort of thought.” Beck and Schultz don’t do enough thinking.
But reasoned opinion, backed with a modicum of fact and an acceptance to challenge, ought be welcomed and even encouraged. Thomas Jefferson once advised a young nation, still trying to form its own opinions and convictions, that, “Errors of opinion may be tolerated, where reason is left free to combat it.” As long as a reasoned citizenry evaluates and questions opinions, our democracy has nothing to worry about.
Voltaire is wrong. And so is your mom.
Opinions are the lifeblood of our democracy and the safeguard of our freedom. Lofty rhetoric, sure, but I firmly believe it to be true. Adlai Stevenson, the late Democratic Governor of Illinois and two-time presidential nominee, put it even more eloquently: “Freedom rings where opinions clash.” A body politic devoid of constructive criticism and national discourse ultimately becomes one of monotony, parochialism and subservience. This nation is exceptional largely because its citizens have convictions and aren’t afraid to let them be known.
For us students, opinions are pivotal to our academic development. The university can only be successful when it acts as a crucible of discussion. There would be no scientific theories for us to study, for instance, if there had been no opinions to form them. We would have nothing useful to do if we had no opinions to test those theories against.
I thus take great pride in and highly respect the Opinions section of The Johns Hopkins News-Letter. The Opinions section is the most unique – and I’d argue, albeit with bias – the most important section of the newspaper. As a student-run publication, the News-Letter affords students an accessible avenue through which to publicize their thoughts and their opinions.
As college students, we’re often disregarded as “just kids with crazy thoughts” – wingnuts unworthy of an audience. But this paper is ours and so are the words in it. The Opinions section is a place to talk – to vent, to test your convictions. But it’s a place where you’ll also be held accountable. Warrantless claims won’t go unanswered: A blistering article against the Palestine Liberation Organization would most likely be answered with an equally blistering article against the Likud party in Israel.
If you’re doubtful, let me reassure you. Last year, I wrote an opinions piece which called out many in this country for wrongly accusing undocumented workers of stripping this nation of its resources, jobs and fiscal security. The response I got was overwhelming. Within minutes, readers from Arizona to California, New Mexico to Washington, were commenting and responding. Some were accusing me of “knowing nothing.” Others were applauding me for finally saying something they had long been attempting to say, but didn’t have the means or the courage to say it.
Other times, the articles we write affect students right here at Hopkins. A contributor last year wrote a piece about the negative effects of sugar intake on athleticism and energy. As I was filling up my cup with water in the FFC, I heard two students arguing about whether they would really become “couch potatoes” if they ate too much sugar. Then a friend joined in. And another. And another.
That’s the beauty of opinions: they matter. They’re fun, cathartic and informative – but they’re also a pretty big deal. Your words, arguments, thoughts and convictions are yours. You can keep them, or you can elect to abandon them in favor of new words, arguments, thoughts and convictions after “reason is left free to combat” the old ones.
So take a few minutes this semester and join the debate. In those unending minutes of procrastination, close Facebook and start typing. Write down your thoughts, your opinions, your beliefs, and let them be tested and evaluated. Let them be listened to and heard.
Any Hopkins undergraduate can contribute. Just write over 500 words on a topic you feel strongly about and email them to firstname.lastname@example.org on the Monday of each week. Your article can be focused on the FFC or the ICC, the AMRs or the UN, Wolman Hall or the European Central Bank. Along with your submission, just provide your major, hometown and class. That’s all there is to it.
So let your voice be heard: write for Opinions. And remember, don’t keep your opinions to yourself.
I’m looking forward to hearing from you.