SMITH: In defense of the Opinion section

After scrapping yet another idea for an article, I realized I had preconceptions about what an opinion piece should seek to accomplish.
A graphic depicting several people arguing with one another. (Hustler Multimedia/Lexie Perez)
A graphic depicting several people arguing with one another. (Hustler Multimedia/Lexie Perez)
Lexie Perez

In The Hustler’s Opinion section, it is a ritual of ours after publishing a piece to keep an eye on the anonymous comments posted in response. Sometimes, our writing elicits praise and support from our readers. Other times — and especially for our more topical or controversial writing — it doesn’t take long for sparks to fly.

“You don’t understand market economics,” a user called “PeterTx52” griped

We deeply apologize for that.

Another user, “silverfern,” called a piece “absolute rubbish.” 

Personally, that’s my favorite kind of rubbish.

Aptly dubbing themselves “Who cares,” a third user asked, “Who allowed this article to be posted?”

I heard Chancellor Diermeier himself gave that one the rubber stamp.

As a writer and editor for The Hustler, I have found these comments don’t amount to much more than cheap entertainment in the short term. In an era of anonymity, our skins have grown thick online; no one’s feelings are getting hurt. If anything, we appreciate those of our readers who interact with the things we write more than those who don’t.

But in the silence between publishing one piece and the next, these sorts of criticisms creep into my mind. I toss ideas around and formulate a pitch, only to discard it once I put pen to paper. This one’s too risky; that one’s too mundane. Before I know it, the range of the opinions I consider worth tackling in print has shrunk to a handful, one I can only manage to tap every few months. While I had assumed those comments didn’t do any real damage, in reality, they had caused me to question my own editorial process and what was worth writing about.

I’ve avoided writing about Greek life, the Title IX office, the Honor Code and many other topics just because I wasn’t sure I would be convincing enough. I even struggled to cite my own experience drafting this very piece because I was afraid of being seen as another indignant author with a personal grievance to air out.

If you looked only at the articles I’ve written for the section, it might be easy to assume I only have strong opinions once in a blue moon. But those that know me well know that couldn’t be further from the truth. What gives?

When I draft an opinion piece, I want a thesis — something relevant, concise and catchy. I want several major points with evidence to support them. In essence, I want a debate case. To get ahead of the inevitable critics, I go about writing an op-ed as if I have to convince somebody I am correct.

I’m not the only one to take this approach — many of my fellow opinion staff writers craft their narrative in a way that forestalls criticism. Staff Writer Aron Boehle’s recent piece on supporting unions functions similarly: it is compelling because it is well-researched, offering statistics and testimonials to support his claim. It has all the hallmarks of a strong argument. Staff Writer Daniel Sak’s piece on GPAs at Vanderbilt runs in the same vein: several main points, data as ammunition and a resounding call-to-action at its conclusion.

Articles like these offer you — the audience — a simple bargain: invest some time into reading this piece, and I will help you understand why I’m right. Their authors are prepared for adverse responses and don’t shy from speaking in absolutes.

However, that isn’t the only way to write an op-ed. After all, in any setting, people who might need to be convinced are only half of your audience. The other half are those who already place value in what you have to say. How do I write something for them? What might they be looking for?

This was an uncomfortable question for me, one that prodded at my insecurities as a writer and as a person. I discovered I was intimidated by the prospect of sharing a piece of myself with a stranger. Rather than inviting engagement, I was reinforcing everything I wrote with impersonal ramparts of data and analysis. The personality underneath, which made my writing mine, was barely visible.

I realized that forcing myself to write in a language of settled facts played right into the hands of the naysayers in our comment sections. I had allowed them to influence my decisions about what to write in the future, even if I hadn’t edited the past articles with which they originally took issue. I was afraid of authoring something “trivial” that wasn’t “linear,” but also of publishing anything they would regard as “embarrassing” or “utter nonsense” for lack of supporting evidence.

An unfortunate truth that the opinion section contends with is the fact that while a fair number of people read what we publish to listen and learn, a greater number read it to be entertained. When it comes to arguments, while those with which we agree may offer catharsis, it is those with which we disagree that are the most entertaining. Anger is regarded as one of the most powerful human emotions, a fact that has already been linked to the disparity between how quickly controversial social media posts spread when compared to less virulent (and less viral) content. 

In other words, it is most entertaining for us to read something we strongly disagree with and then promptly voice that disagreement. Further, when we are hungry for conflict, stumbling across articles that aren’t ironclad amalgamations of facts and figures can feel like an invitation to criticize. Time after time, we flock to the comment section, if not to lay siege to the writer’s work, then to spectate upon what damage others have wrought there. 

But we can also find entertainment in pieces with which we identify, those which allow us to feel seen, heard and felt. These are the pieces on which the opinion section thrives.

Consider Former Opinion Copy Editor Corey Feuer’s piece on the downsides of Grindr or Podcasts Director Jaylan Sims’ article on neurodivergence. Rather than blast the reader with facts and statistics, immediately creating a defensive tone, these authors sought to build empathy with the audience and empower groups of people with whom they relate. They wrote about what they felt and the things they experienced, and they do so in a way that is both poetic and down-to-earth. They don’t require the same defensive tone because they seek to share rather than convince.

Senior Staff Writer Elise Harris’ editorial on surviving a year in Gillette also sums this style of writing up perfectly. Rather than take up arms against the notoriety of her Commons house, Elise invites commiseration and stokes the reader’s sense of humor. How do the comments underneath that piece read, you ask? “Phenomenal,” “perfectly written” and even “Best article in the Hustler all year.” 

I’ve settled on the reality that there is no one way to write for the opinion section. Some pieces may be direct; others may wander. Some may deliver a bounty of supporting research, while others may be anecdotal, relatable and personal. That flexibility allows writers to express themselves authentically, ensuring that more people are able to be heard. Being heard matters — and silence is boring.

I’m trying something new now. I think I’ve written something that meanders and isn’t always concrete, but will resonate with the authors that gather in the Sarratt newsroom every Sunday. Better yet, I’ve still learned something — not about the world, but about myself and what it means to share what I think with strangers.

Even when we get things wrong, struggle to find the words to capture what we mean or write about things with which everybody already agrees, the opinion staff are an expressive, creative, witty bunch. So fire away, ye anonymous critics, because in this section, your voice matters too.

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About the Contributors
Parker Smith
Parker Smith, Deputy News Editor
Parker Smith ('24) is majoring in computer science and political science in the School of Engineering. He enjoys playing guitar in his spare time and is a former Starbucks barista and self-proclaimed coffee expert. He can be reached at [email protected].
Lexie Perez
Lexie Perez, Graphics Director
Lexie Perez (‘26) is from Northern Virginia and is majoring in climate studies and human and organizational development and minoring in business in the College of Arts and Science. She enjoys listening to 70s and 80s pop music, doing the daily Wordle and rooting for the Nashville Predators and Cincinnati Bengals. She can be reached at [email protected].
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The Vanderbilt Hustler welcomes and encourages readers to engage with content and express opinions through the comment sections on our website and social media platforms. The Hustler reserves the right to remove comments that contain vulgarity, hate speech, personal attacks or that appear to be spam, commercial promotion or impersonation. The comment sections are moderated by our Editor-in-Chief, Rachael Perrotta, and our Social Media Director, Chloe Postlewaite. You can reach them at [email protected] and [email protected].
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3 months ago

I love reading the Hustler out of most newspapers I read – collegiate or otherwise. A big part of that is the clear enthusiasm and effort put into every article. I don’t read many opinion sections and come away with lasting considerations to mull over.