The Mixed Messages of Modernism: I’d say

Feb. 3, 2012, 12:27 a.m.

The Mixed Messages of Modernism: I'd sayThis is my last column, for a while at least, and one of the last in Vol. 240 of The Daily. I thought it would be fitting to provide some commentary about just why I have done my best to avoid saying “I.”


Using the third person is a long-held journalistic convention. But like many conventions, it can be broken, and nowhere are journalistic norms more often flaunted than in opinions sections. Dispassion and objectivity are not required, and sometimes license is taken to defy Strunk, White and the AP guidelines. Some of the unconventional behavior is justified: it brings out more substance at the cost of less space, oftentimes. It can be distracting and irritating, too. But the use of “I” in serious opinions writing, I take profound umbrage with.


“I” serves as a consistent reminder of the person writing the column. Like a brushstroke on a painting, it calls out the human origin of the ideas discussed. That, in my opinion, distracts and detracts from a column’s purpose and potential.


If anything, I’d rather distance my opinions from who I am. I would like to let an opinion stand on its own. When I write, I am not trying to make my opinion known. The intention behind the action is not expressive. I am hoping to make a solidly constructed opinion known, so others can make a judgment on it. The more I can absent myself from that process, the better. If I wanted everyone to know what I thought and do that alone, I could bring a soapbox to White Plaza, stand on it and yell. But I do not want the origin of the opinion to be a significant fact, nor do I want the manner of delivery to be intrusive. It is my hope that readers will encounter the work on their own terms, taking it as though it were an idea pulled from the air. The degree of separation between my column and myself might seem vaguely absurd, but it does have purpose.


Nothing in my life has ever made me as frustrated as the sentence, “You only say that because you’re…” When writing about the value of club sports, the knee-jerk reaction on the part of those in opposition is to say that I am, in fact, a club sports player and could not be expected to say anything else. That, however, is a blatant misstep. When people speak, it is a reflexive defense to typecast them, to disparage their opinions on account of who they are and to assume that their opinions are formed merely as direct reactions to one circumstance or another. When this happens, caricatures replace serious belief and personal diatribes take the place of dialogue. I find that the ad hominem attack lies at the basis of much theoretical agreement. When the mouth is disagreeable, many find its product likewise distasteful. The absence of “I” forces a reader to assail my arguments, not my person.


But the ultimate reason why I don’t use “I” is that “I” is unimportant. If my self were influential in how you evaluate my arguments, you would be failing us both (unless you suspected me of factual inaccuracy). What does “I” add? A face and a reputation, to be sure. But never should those things figure into your stance toward an opinion or argument. I would never want someone to believe in my arguments by force of who I am. That is mimicry, not thought.


In writing this, I have tried “I” on for size and found that it adds nothing. Perhaps it makes a piece more personable and relatable, but it is never my intention to provide that sort of personal satisfaction. Fiction writers traffic in the currency of personal fulfillment, but it is for opinions writers to help clarify and introduce new means of looking at the world and its problems. To be sure, this does not mean that dryness need be the order of the day. Columnists should have passion for their subjects but imbue their writing with fervor instead of declaring their sympathies. Columnists should strive for persuasion, not commiseration, not to express passion, but to help others to direct their own.


Looking to get to know Spencer on a more…personal level? Then why not email him at dsnelson “at” stanford “dot” edu?


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