Columnist pens farewell
April 17, 2017
Filed under Opinion
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Editor’s note: Kyle Day joined the Northern Iowan (NI) columnist staff one year ago. He has written some 20 articles on politics, free speech religious liberty and sexual assault, among other topics. This is his final solo column for the NI.
As my time in the Masters in Public Policy program will come to an end this summer, after I research and present my thesis, this is my final solo entry with the Northern Iowan. You all should be congratulated for enduring me and my insufferable logic, my annoying accuracy and my obnoxious gift for the written word.
All joking aside, I’ve enjoyed this experience immensely, and I thank Laura Smith (my writing teacher in high school, by the way) and Nick Fisher for the initial offer, and especially Nick for being as supportive yet liberating an editor as he has been. I have never once felt ostracized, shackled or otherwise censored as an opinion writer, that there was not a single argument I could not make.
Which brings me to the controversy over my piece about sexual assault and bad social science weeks ago. One recurring refrain of criticism I heard took various forms of the following: “He got the facts just plain wrong, so the Northern Iowan should never have allowed him to publish it in the first place.”
This is false, of course, as my response last week explains (and anyone who takes the time to read the internals of the studies I addressed can verify). But let’s suppose it were true, for the sake of argument (that’s a hint), that my premises were faulty and therefore my conclusions were also faulty. That’s simply not a reason to not publish an opinion piece.
“But you’re writing for a newspaper, you have to have the facts straight!” you might retort. While I’m writing for a newspaper, I’m not a reporter (arguably, I’m technically not even a journalist). It is absolutely central to the task of the reporter to gather as factually accurate information as possible in order to tell the story he or she is writing for readers. When we read a news report, we rightly have the reasonable expectation that the reporter has gone to great lengths to confirm the veracity of the factual claims he or she is making.
But the heart and soul of being a columnist is not getting the facts straight; it’s making arguments in participation of the public discourse and debate. It’s employing fundamental principles of logic and following the flow of an argument (premise, premise…conclusion, etc.), challenging those arguments that are weak, recognizing those that are valid and accepting those that are sound.
This is not to say that columnists should be unconcerned with getting the facts straight entirely. After all, the only way to refute a valid argument is to point out those flawed or false premises on which the conclusion is based. The good columnist wants to avoid assuming false premises in order to make as sound arguments as possible.
And there may be a high threshold of factual accuracy for columnists, violation of which (especially overtime) can and should trigger some editorial action on the part of the paper. This is to say, however, that if you’re reading an opinion column expecting an identical sort of truth telling found in a news story, you’re simply missing the point.
The task of the columnist is not to tell you what to think is objectively true and factual; it is to advise you about how to think about what you know to be true. It is to present at least one reasoned perspective on a contemporary, relevant or otherwise interesting topic of public discourse and debate, and to do so in a way that is rigorous and persuasive.
I could spend another column and more addressing why this fundamental realization appeared to be lost on many of my critics, but Michael Sandel and the late Christopher Lasch have both addressed the lost art of argument and debate with far greater rigor and eloquence than I could (Sandel has at least a TED talk on the subject, but I’m in a better position to recommend Lasch’s book, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy).
I’ll simply conclude by saying that this vision of the columnist is that which I have striven to emulate, and which I hope has been noticed and appreciated by my readers.
May you all emulate this in a smaller scale in your own lives, thinking critically about all perspective you hear and all arguments that are made, living an examined life in which you most clearly know what you believe and why. There are few greater forms of security one can experience than that.