Editorial: Oct. 19
Last week, we published an Op-Ed article about politics and Christianity which provoked strong responses, both in agreement and in vehement disagreement. Some of the letters we received about it questioned whether we should have published that article in the first place. I stand behind our decision to do so, and here is the long answer why.
Calvin does a good job at incubating a sense of campus community. However, I think this community is more fragile than it’s ever been. The college is becoming more complicated and harder to keep a handle on. Having over 100 majors and programs might help admissions, but it also means that students have fewer others who share their major and speak their native academic dialect. Church backgrounds are becoming more diverse. The significance attached by students to involvement in student government or student organizations does not seem to be what it once was.
But because campus community is important and valuable, anything we can do to reinforce it is also more important than ever. This is something that we hope to be doing at the Chimes. A newspaper is suited for this because everyone holds exactly the same articles in their hands. Social networking might be a more personal means to similar ends, but the newspaper can build common ground between people in a way Facebook can’t. Covering news means that we can have a common purview of what is going on at Calvin and in the community. Providing space for opinion articles means we can be aware of what people think outside our own ideological cliques.
In order for the newspaper to have this role, it needs the right kind of writers and readers. We need good writers so that we can deliver on the implicit promise that when you pick up Chimes and spend your time reading it, that it will inform you, lead you to new insights and give you something to have an intelligent discussion about. We need charitable readers that respond to good work by discussing it and providing the feedback that writers need. In order to have consistent high-quality content, there needs to be a feedback loop where readers and writers both encourage each other. At least for the Op-Ed section, the situation on either side is currently not as good as it could be.
Writers are dependent on readers to keep up their motivation to write. I don’t write for Chimes as much as I could. The most salient reason is that I rarely hear feedback about my articles. It takes more time than you expect to have some insight, flesh it out then follow through on the gruntwork of actually writing it in a way other people can understand. Writing is a risky activity which makes your inner thoughts and beliefs public. The reward is that those thoughts can spark new thoughts in other people as your idea escapes you and takes on a public life. I know that this happens when I write, but I don’t hear about it. As a result, I am not very motivated to put the work and risk into new articles.
Readers are dependent on writers to bring what would otherwise be hidden or unthought to light. I know plenty of blooming thinkers at Calvin who can write clearly and insightfully, who would have something to offer to the campus community. Not many of them publish their thoughts in the Chimes. In my opinion, the people who have something to add to public discussion at Calvin have an obligation to contribute, and as I argued above, one of the most effective ways to do so is still by being published in the newspaper.
There are other factors at play also, like lack of time and the devaluation of having your name in print because of the ease of publishing on the Internet, however, the end result is that we are at an impasse where writers aren’t motivated to write and readers have not been rewarded with the best thought Calvin students have to offer. It follows that we are short content to publish. The feedback loop needs a new push to get it started again.
What does this have to do with publishing a controversial article? It’s not, as you might expect at this point, that we had nothing else to print. It’s that we feel that part of our role is empowering students by providing them a platform for publishing their opinions, whatever they may be, in the way that they think would be most constructive for sharing that opinion. If Chimes is to benefit the community by exposing people to the different opinions that students hold, we editors have no right to get in the way. I have my own opinions as to what I would like to publish, but as an editor, I am a curator, not a censor.
At the same time, I would like to make clear that some ways of writing opinion pieces are more effective and constructive than others. Good articles are written for the sole purpose of building a discussion, not to push a point of view, presenting paths, not positions. They are insightful, giving readers something new to think about or a new perspective on the world. They are invitations down a certain path of thought. They are at the same time nuanced and provocative.
How can we get articles like that in our newspaper, which start discussions, inform, are interesting, and upbuild the campus community? As a reader, make sure to write letters to the editor, comment on online articles and speak to writers in person about the discussions you had that were started by their articles. Writers need the encouragement to continue to contribute, and usually would love to continue the conversation with you. And if you ever so much as an inkling to write, get in touch with us. We will work with you to get you the contacts and resources you need to contribute to the public discussions going on at Calvin College.