April 8, 2014

Response to “No New Points”: What are viewpoints for?

Former Maroon editor scrutinizes the "UChicago Identity" and the role of the student newspaper.

As a former editor of the Viewpoints section, I was extremely disappointed to read Benjamin Gammage’s piece, “Viewpoints Has No New Points” (4/4/14), not simply because it was so poorly argued, but also because it betrayed a profound lack of respect for the community to whom it was purportedly speaking.

Gammage writes: “The Viewpoints section has rarely been a credit to the Maroon, being all too often filled with the smug pronouncements and imbecilic ramblings of cocksure college students who are inexplicably certain that their inane prattle deserves a spot in the best public forum this college has” (emphases mine). At other points in the piece, Gammage calls Viewpoints writers “seemingly illiterate” and “idiots.”

The article is frustratingly illustrative of the sort of opinion that often gets passed off as presenting a thoughtful point while in fact being entirely devoid of any content other than disparagement. Casual disparagement is, contrary to what Gammage may think, very easy. True insight, on the other hand, is not. The article fails in every respect to achieve what it sets out to do. While its basic premise—if you are dissatisfied with what is printed in the Viewpoints section, send in your own contributions—is reasonable (and nothing novel), the rest of the article is deeply antithetical to that supposed aim, and is revealing of many of the harmful attitudes among certain students, here and elsewhere, that foreclose, rather than foster, discourse.

To examine, first of all, the reasons Gammage provides for why the Viewpoints section matters: Gammage cites an article from The Harvard Crimson and then proceeds to make assumptions, based on the publishing of this article, about Harvard’s broader student culture “of status and materiality.” Our Viewpoints section will also, argues Gammage, “present the prevailing opinions and debates” happening at UChicago (and perhaps will “confirm common suspicions” about our reputation). Gammage believes in UChicago exceptionalism, and the Viewpoints section is failing to show the world that we are “one of the last bastions of serious academic rigor and the life of the mind.”

The belief in the so-called UChicago identity that Gammage espouses in this article, I suspect, is one shared by more than a few students. But I think it gestures toward the sort of disturbing ego-warping that can occur when the administration’s determination to present a ready-made identity in order to attract students is then bought, wholesale, by some who end up attending. This prideful belief is then wielded, once here, not to unify, but to exclude. The true UChicago student—and this is some kind of intrinsic quality, according to this view—believes in the “life of the mind,” actively participating in rigorous, democratic debate and rejecting status and materiality (you know, unlike those shallow Harvard kids). Anyone who fails to live up to this standard—and evidently this includes most of Gammage’s peers who have written for Viewpoints—is contributing to the decay of UChicago’s exceptional status.

Yet in spite of Gammage’s explicitly exclusionary and derogatory language, he still affirms his belief in the “Socratic maxim of shared engagement in discourse and dialectic.” Unfortunately, this envisioned “shared” discourse is a very narrow one. What Gammage has in mind is the opinion piece in which the points are laid out like signposts for the lazy reader who, while professing to desire wisdom, simply wants to be immediately validated or enraged in accordance to their own reified set of beliefs and principles. The pieces that he cites as being particularly offensive, helpfully described as “rambling stream of consciousness totally devoid of introspection or self-reflection,” are meaningful, and arrive at meaning in a way that may not be immediately legible to the reader who fears leaving their own comfortable patterns of thought.

The article, finally, is indicative of broader misunderstandings within contemporary discourse about the purpose of the media. The role of a student newspaper is not, as Gammage erroneously presumes, to speak for the college community; it is to speak to the college community. Though that may appear to be a small difference, it is in fact an enormous one. Speaking for presumes a reader who is like you, and is therefore not interested in a correspondence. Speaking to recognizes that you are writing to a frequently shifting audience comprised of individuals with vastly disparate experiences and belief systems, and hopes for a response in kind. Just as the Crimson’s publishing of “15 Hottest Freshman” cannot be abstracted and used to conform to some illusory conception of Harvard’s broader student culture (especially coming from someone who does not attend Harvard), the Viewpoints section does not speak for, or represent, the UChicago student body. No individual, nor group of individuals, can do that on behalf of the student body in its entirety.

For anyone who has felt, or feels, discouraged by Gammage’s article (or other pieces expressing similar attitudes), please remember that there are so many others who are eagerly listening—so keep on writing.

Emily Wang is a fourth-year in the College majoring in English.