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On Opinion Pieces

For my first YU Commentator article, I had been given the assignment of writing an opinion piece. I could write about anything: an analysis of the Presidential debates, my opinions concerning the Roe v. Wade legal decision, or even my take on corruption in the government of Myanmar. Yet the broad range of possibilities failed to make the topic selection any easier. Rather, the immense volume and complexity of opinion-worthy scenarios only made my own opinions seem more and more irrelevant. They caused me to contemplate what value there is in publishing my opinion, and moreover, they caused me to wonder what the purpose of an opinion piece is altogether.

In my 11th grade AP Government course, the teacher often required us to read one or two opinion pieces in the Sunday Op-Ed section of the New York Times, enforcing the policy with a Monday quiz. He told us that the more opinions we read concerning a particular topic, the more we would come to understand it. It sounds like a flawless premise. If one were to read an opinion from one side of the aisle, followed by an opinion from the other side of the aisle, then they would possess a greater understanding of the points of contention. A greater understanding of the fundamentals would, in turn, enable the person to form a more comprehensive opinion on a particular scenario. Therefore, my teacher believed that the primary reason for reading an opinion piece is the wisdom that could be gained from exposure to new ideas.

In reality, the opinion piece is often underutilized in serving such a purpose. A large number of people react to the opinion piece in one of two fashions, each dependent on the person’s prior opinions regarding the topic at hand. The first of these responses can be labeled as the “inflammatory response”, since it is a quick, and often violent, rejection of the author’s entire premise. The inflammatory response is reserved for the person who has his or her mind set on a particular approach, and is unwilling to hear anything from the opposite end of the spectrum. They often posses so much conviction, that they are upset by the notion of anybody holding an opinion different than their own.

The second possibility, the “validated response,” is the polar opposite of the inflammatory response. In this scenario, the author and reader subscribe to similar opinions, and therefore the reader often savors every word. I do not suppose to fully understand why people enjoy re-reading their own opinions, but it certainly satisfies the very human need for the validation of one’s thoughts.

The existence of these two reader “classes” makes it clear to me that some people don’t read opinion pieces to become exposed to a new viewpoint. And so my 11th grade teacher’s reasoning faces a challenge. If the reality of opinion-piece consumption often fails to help the reader understand a new perspective, then was my teacher wrong to suggest that exposure to a new perspective was the primary reason for reading an opinion piece? No he wasn’t, and my reasoning is simple. Presumably, authors of opinion pieces have a reason for writing what they are writing. They feel that others are approaching a particular topic in a fashion that differs from their own approach. Therefore, they try to explain the situation according to their own understanding, in order to try and convince people of the merits of their approach. A responsible writer is not writing the piece to preach to the converted,[i] and he or she is certainly not writing the piece to change the opinion of those who will refuse to hear it. An opinion piece is written to explain a line of reasoning to those who are willing to listen. And who has a greater say in determining the purpose of an opinion piece than the author?
As an Orthodox Jew, I believe that my tradition is also a proponent of being open to an honest exploration of differing opinions. When Jews learn Talmud, they treat every approach to a conflict equally. Even if one opinion is ultimately chosen to be the more valid, the “flawed” approach is still fleshed out and learned in detail. The Talmudic scholars recognized that the greatest knowledge does not come from one approach only; rather, the ultimate comprehension comes from the process of digging for a deeper truth, which is catalyzed by the very existence of differing opinions.

Therefore, the one thing that seems apparent to me is that the primary purpose of the opinion piece is to offer a new perspective on a particular issue. Naturally, there are opinion pieces that offer the reader little in terms of valuable new insights. And oftentimes, someone who is open to new ideas can completely disagree with the points the author is making. But there is a clear difference between someone who disagrees with a premise based on its supporting points, and someone who disagrees with the supporting points based on its premise. If you are someone who reads opinion pieces with no intention of listening to a new viewpoint, that’s your prerogative, just be aware that those pieces are probably not intended for you.

[i] Unfortunately, some of the more well known Op-Ed writers have a regular audience, and do, in fact, preach to the converted to a degree. I do not feel that this sort of writing is prevalent among most opinion writers, although I do not really possess the evidence to back up such a claim. Fortunately, this piece reflects my opinion, and therefore only offers my insight, not the elusive “absolute truth.”