Get Better: Building a Culture of Civility

As Opinions Editor this semester, I have learned about the dedication of the staff and the immense amount of work that goes into the newspaper. I have also learned that the newspaper receives a nontrivial amount of criticism for the work published in its name. Perhaps this merely demonstrates my naïveté, but I never realized that The Student Life generated such intense feelings among members of the Claremont College community.

The criticism is sometimes deserved. Try as they might, the hardworking staff and editors of this newspaper can’t get everything right; details are missed, and voices aren’t heard. Of course, this is true of every publication in existence, and I hope that critics recall that the students who work for TSL have full-time commitments outside of the paper.

I don’t write this to make lame excuses for any of the mistakes, errors, or omissions that others or I have made while working for the paper, although I am trying to humanize the institution of TSL a little. (Please understand: numerous students with diverse talents and interests write for the newspaper; criticizing TSL as though it were a monolithic institution is reductive.) My main objective, though, is to appeal to the better nature of the talented and diverse student body that we possess and to help the staff make the paper better, more enlightening, more inclusive, and more informative.

How, the thoughtful reader wonders, might I contribute to a better newspaper? To answer that question, I think we must first understand the ideal of a newspaper. At its best, a newspaper not only informs its audience; it provides a forum for reciprocal criticism, conversation, and dialogue. A newspaper—and especially its opinions page and (in the Internet age) comments section—is anything but a one-way street. If a publication is fortunate enough to be endowed with a culture of civil discourse, readers and editors can learn from each other, fertilizing both dialogue and respect.

As a consortium of liberal arts colleges, one might imagine that we would have a culture of civil discourse ingrained deep in our bones. Unfortunately, too often this semester, the responses to opinions that deviate from the norm have been hostile rather than reasoned and civil. The comments sections on the most controversial opinions pieces, with their ever-exciting and stimulating variety of personal insults, are the only written records of a broader disinterest in fully engaging with opposing viewpoints.

Unreasonable views can and should be responded to with reason, not just passion; that is the very foundation upon which discourse exists. The comments section, used properly, can be a powerful tool. Letters and response pieces are even better. Such contributions help to build a conversation and truly create a more tight-knit body politic. I also want to beg those of you who have in the privacy of your dorm rooms vehemently disagreed with pieces published here to now begin to make your voices heard in this section. No one can do that for you.

In addition to asking the Claremont community to more fully and respectfully engage opinions with which they disagree, I ask that Claremont be bolder in sending unsolicited opinions to TSL. Natural limitations in time and campus knowledge make seeking out the most opinionated person for every issue impossible; unfortunately, such limitations can make persons on campus feel as though the newspaper does not represent them. TSL strives to represent the entire campus but cannot do so without the help of those very individuals who feel that they are not represented.

TSL will never be perfect, and neither will its opinions section. Improvement is at least an achievable goal—but not without the engagement, interest, and commitment of the student body. As Frank Langan would say: get better, Claremont. Only you can make The Student Life live up to its potential.

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