For Debate's Sake
Not too long ago, I received a one-line e-mail message from a Crimson reader containing a single question: "Do you actually believe the things that you write?" The question is deceptively simple, I did not answer it at the time because I quite simply did not know how to respond. My answer, which I will attempt to offer here in my final column, goes beyond a simple yes or no. Please allow me to be somewhat self-referential (and self-indulgent) in this attempt to explain my own conception of the role of an opinion writer in an intellectual community such as Harvard.
Since my positions on most issues are usually very different from those held by most "mainstream" Harvard students, it shouldn't be surprising that I'm asked this question with such frequency. What disturbs me is not the question itself but the incredulous tone in which it is usually delivered.
"Do you actually believe what you write? How can you be so stupid? Don't you know, as we enlightened liberals do, that your position is deeply flawed?" The tone of the question shows just how far left most Harvard students lean. (If we were to leave the island of liberalism we know as Cambridge, my classmates would be frightened to see just how moderate my positions really are.)
To speak to the question, I must admit that I don't believe 100 percent of what I write. There are times when I get so caught up in the excitement of a particular argument that I take it too far out of sheer intellectual zeal, without realizing what I have done. But there are other times, I must also confess, when I deliberately state an argument in more extreme terms than my actual beliefs may warrant.
Some might argue that this is bad journalism. Not being a professional journalist, I will pass on this question. But I will certainly defend this practice as intellectually responsible and even necessary in a university setting. In a community of ideas like Harvard, one that likes to fashion itself as vibrant and thriving, it is crucial that the place be shaken up on a regular basis. Unpopular opinions need to be expressed so that we do not grow complacent and intellectually lazy.
We draw lines within the field of discourse and say that positions falling outside these boundaries are "unacceptable." But sometimes the lines need to be crossed just so we can investigate why we hold the fundamental beliefs that we do. In the short term, taking extreme positions on controversial issues may be followed by hurt feelings and initial furor. But if the long-term result of crossing ideological lines is increased debate and serious analysis of important questions, then I'm all for it.
In addition to the question of the substance of what editorialists write, there is also the question of how we convey our ideas. Tone is certainly a very important consideration in opinion writing. There are times when editorialists cross the line of good taste in their writing, when they are unnecessarily offensive and when they sacrifice clarity of meaning for inflammatory value. Looking back on some of my own editorials, I can find instances of such inappropriate tone.
Reading over these pieces, I felt a certain amount of guilt and regret. I began thinking about which sentences I would not have written if I could do it all over again, which positions I would-have made more moderate if I had had a second chance. But then I stopped to ask myself whether this exercise was useful in any way. After all, hindsight is 20-20. The essential problem with censoring yourself in order to make sure you don't go "too far" is that you often don't know how far is too far until that point has been passed.
In my zeal to generate discussion about controversial issues, I may have gone too far on occasion. But I'm certainly not the evil conservative that the liberal establishment likes to depict all of its foes as. In real life, I'm a soft-spoken, mellow fellow who smiles and nods a lot. If I am guilty of anything. I would say (to borrow from Shakespeare) that I have loved opinion writing and debate over issues "not wisely, but too well."
Thanks for the memories, dear reader. It's been a fun ride.
This is David B. Lat's last column.