Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
I decided that the first article I ever wanted to write in college would be an opinions article. I had written a bunch of news and sports articles in high school and wanted to write something new. But after reading the famous comments section on other DG articles and read comments that were longer than the articles themselves, I wondered: “Am I experienced enough?” I tried thinking endlessly about which topics to write about. I thought maybe writing an article titled “The Case for Sharples” might be a good start: A positive opinion about something not too controversial. But then I realized my opinion would mean nothing to (and could quickly be broken down by) the hardened veterans of Sharples that are our seniors — those who have figured out which meal times during the week are optimal, what the right proportions of ice cream, sprinkles, and chocolate syrup are, and the secrets of the Home Depot of Sharples: the wok.
I tried thinking more, but doubts regarding my naiveté and inexperience settled in. So then I realized: I should go on a journey of descriptive narration regarding the questioning of the legitimacy of my want to write an opinion article. And I thought “Yes, that’s an incredible idea.” So I’m writing this article right now.
So to get to the point: should an (inexperienced) freshman like myself be allowed to write opinion articles? Well, in short, it depends. There have been freshmen who have written very well put-together opinion articles (i.e. Leon Chen on the Alcohol Policy for DG, Casey Lu Simon-Plumb on financial aid for the Phoenix) on topics that are of serious consequence for all Swatties. However, this doesn’t mean a freshman’s opinion on anything and everything will always be valid.
The fact of the matter is, there are some things that one needs to have experience with if one is to form a well-grounded opinion on it. I wouldn’t be able to write an article on how tough the workload is at Swat, because well, I literally have only spent a little more a couple of months here, and this is probably the one of the easiest parts of the 4+ years one spends at Swat. I don’t know what it feels like second-semester sophomore year when the impending crisis of declaring your major is upon you, and so, I couldn’t really form a well-informed opinion on that either. Similarly, I wouldn’t be able to write an opinion article about how tough the grading is at Swat, because, well, I’ve only received a few letter grades so far.
On the other hand, freshmen can provide a fresh take on topics that have been argued about for weeks or even months. Whether it’s the new alcohol policy, or perhaps a hypothetical article on whether we need Swat Team (wait, for real, are they stealing my meal swipes?), some debates can truly benefit from the new, albeit naive, opinions of your beloved froshlings. New insights on an old debate can rejuvenate the conversation and maybe provide some new solutions to a persistent problem.
But let’s delve deeper into the issue. Who am I, or anyone else, to decide whether a (freshman) opinion is valid or not? If we really are a completely open place here at Swat, shouldn’t we be able to accept any opinion, whether it’s a freshman or a senior, black or white, gay or straight (of course, there are many more denominations within each of these general categories)? Who is to say one opinion is valid and one is not? Despite the openness that we Swatties pride ourselves on, many of us, if not all, have a threshold where our openness ends, and that really just depends on our own specific, personal beliefs that we deeply hold to be true. As open as we would like to be, there’s a line where our own biases and beliefs take over. Should that line exist though?
Referring back to what I said about the comments section: One look at the comments of a ‘controversial’ DG article, and “openness to other’s opinions” is the last thing that will enter your mind. Maybe openness does not entail accepting other’s opinions, but accepting their right to speak their opinion? However, even there, there are countless cases where an opinion one holds to be completely valid may be immediately labelled by someone else as unpalatable, offensive, and one that should not even be allowed to be said in the public sphere. The question I’m getting at is: Should(n’t) any and every opinion be tolerated, especially at a place like Swarthmore, where freedom of expression and speech is trumpeted so ostensibly as a core value of our institution?
If someone were to say something racist, should we respect that person’s freedom of speech? Should we allow opinions that may come off as discriminatory to be tolerated? If we are to be as tolerant as possible, we should be tolerant of those who are themselves intolerant, right? Or is that just being tolerant of injustice? Is freedom of speech really freedom of speech if we only ‘allow’ that right to those we believe deserve it based on their opinions? Of course there is the argument that one has the right to freedom of speech as long as it does not infringe on someone else’s rights. Where exactly that fringe is, can at times be vague and variable, and just because one did not mean to touch that fringe, doesn’t mean one’s opinion wasn’t offensive. Ultimately, how open-minded are we willing to be to opinions that may seem closed-minded?
On another note, I’d like to acknowledge some advice Lili Rodriguez, Associate Dean of Diversity, Inclusion, and Community Development, gave us newbie-Swatties during Orientation. She taught us the distinction between debate and dialogue, which I realize now is truly significant. Dialogue seems to be a more constructive, informative form of communication of ideas as compared to debate, which establishes a very me-against-you dynamic. I’m slowly starting to discover that, in general (at least from what I have seen) we Swatties have very strong opinions on a wide range of topics, and we’re very willing to offer our $0.02. This willingness to participate is an awesome trait of our student body. However from what I have seen so far, it can also sometimes inadvertently lead to pointless, heated debate instead of productive, constructive dialogue. I’m guilty of it myself; in order to change this, I’ve tried to take an approach where I try less to persuade others and try more to inform them. The more we can understand the superiority of constructive dialogue to excessively impassioned, unproductive debate, the more we can better our community.
So as I’ve led you through this article that is closer to a stream of consciousness than it is to a newspaper article, I’ve wondered if my opinion on opinions is truly legitimate. Ultimately, sometimes you have to take some intellectual and social risk and test the waters (of articulate DG commenters). As some great philosopher (seemingly very wise upperclassman) once told me on a Thursday night, “Intellectual risks are important. So go to Paces. Pass-Fail, young one.”