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Columns

Rhetoric or Poetry

Looking Up

By Katie Disalvo

What do you think of abortion? Do you want a student center? Do you support gun control? Welfare? Post-modernism? Do you support a minimum wage? What do you think of athletes? Do you like Joyce? Does the University need more resources for the sciences? Should we go to war with Iraq?

The asking and answering of such questions permeates a large portion of life at Harvard—during dinner conversations, sections, essay-writing and extra-curricular activities.

When I’ve hesitated to respond to such questions, I’ve almost always found people eager for an answer. “Come on, what do you think, Katie?” If I speak in uncertain terms, I am often pushed for a stance. “Wait, does that make you pro- life or pro-choice?” If I admit to knowing little about a topic there is a beat of silence, I feel foolish, and the conversation takes a turn.

But such pressure towards opinions is hardly limited to conversation.

Teaching Fellow: “I wanted a clearer thesis; there was too much ambiguity in the conclusion.” Column Editor: “Katie, you’re hiding the ball again! Have an argument!”

It’s unavoidable. People ask for opinions—and expect answers—all the time. I worry that over time this behavior encourages shallow responses rather than thoughtfulness.

Other undergrads expect each other to have positions on every major domestic policy issue, on local elections, on University policy, and on all of U.S. international relations 1759 to present, all major orchestral works and literature from Beowulf on (especially Joyce, Eliot, Freud). This puts me in a difficult position. On the one hand, I want to be able to participate in such debates and discussions. Like everyone else, I want to know what I believe in. I want thus to open the possibility of my acting on my opinions, and speaking about them clearly.

On the other hand, I know there’s a lot I don’t know about the world. I also want to be a thoughtful, thorough person and find that such desires often lead me away from opinions that can be easily explained over lunch. When looking at an issue—literary, political or school-policy related—I like to peer at it from a number of perspectives, to recognize and wrestle with its ambiguities. I realized recently that I like to write columns like I tend to write poetry.

In the process of trying to do so, I have wondered if there is room for poetry on the Crimson editorial page. It often seems to me that there’s room for one gimmicky first paragraph (note my example above), and a clear stance the reader can agree with or flagrantly disagree with, and that there’s room for little else. Because do we not, here on this page and in conversations all through sections and dining halls of the University, expect solid opinions, or positions, more than we expect an intelligent recognition of complexities, a thoughtful position on a fence?

The degree to which we expect opinions from each other reflects a decently bizarre sense of what it means to have an opinion. Who do we think we are, formulating reams of opinions off of our few years of life experience, our relatively short study? And who do we think is listening to us? Since just taking a stance on an issue is barely, barely taking a stand, why are we so insistent on it? And at the same time that our discussing such issues accomplishes little to nothing, these discussions often deal with issues of huge import (war and welfare come immediately to mind). One can’t help but wonder if we don’t display incredible callousness to the truth of “issues” in people’s lives through our casual or rhetorical conversations of them.

Once in a while I want to walk through a dining hall and hear someone respond to “what do you think of Israel?” with, “Actually, I’m really struggling with it.” I want to hear someone answer those general section starters (“what did you think of Middlemarch?”) by asking questions (“What is Eliot trying to say about vocation? I wasn’t sure…”) rather than spouting an analysis and critique of form.

“From our quarrels with others we make rhetoric,” William Butler Yeats wrote. “From our quarrels with ourselves we make poetry.” What if we were brave enough to put rhetoric aside more often? How different would Harvard be if more of us acknowledged those inner quarrels? What if there were more poetry?

Katie DiSalvo ’05 is a religion concentrator in Cabot House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

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