published 23 March 2007, MST
This column has been appearing in this newspaper every Friday for more than three months already. I had thought that the excitement and the novelty would wear off as time passed. They haven’t.
All the talk on freedom of expression and speaking one’s mind has only served to make the exercise of thinking of a topic, writing, and actually seeing the words in print more terrifying each week.
You perhaps will wonder: What is this girl yapping about? What is so terrifying about having several square inches of one’s own space in a national daily?
Actually, nobody’s complaining. In fact, having a regular column is a privilege. Just think of so many other people struggling to make their voices heard—it is immaterial at this point to draw a distinction whether or not they have something truly worthy to say—but aren’t quite given the opportunity to do so.
And here I am, given this much space every week, where I can talk about any topic—from Stephen Hawking to Mr. Bean, from the distant past to the near future—with no restriction other than common decency and a fair grasp of grammar rules.
But again, the movie says it best: With freedom comes great responsibility.
It is easy to think that opinion writers in any newspaper get the better end of the deal. Their pieces are not subject to the same stringent rules that govern news writing. They are not required to offer information explicitly. They will not be evaluated on the basis of their satisfaction of the 5Ws and the 1H requirement.
They can begin their essays with a narrative, a question mark, an exclamatory remark. Forget the well-structured lead.
Most importantly, they are free to write what they think. And since they are mainstays of the opinion page, communicating precisely that—their opinion—they are not as vulnerable to libel suits as ordinary reporters are. So long as, of course, they don’t go overboard with their statements, and assuming such statements escape the editor. This is the stuff for which opinion writers are paid.
But is this a fair appreciation of what it means to communicate with the masses?
Actually, exemption from rigorous rules arises from the presumption that opinion writers are already versed not only with the basics of grammar and style but also the tenets of fairness and objectivity. It is taken for granted that opinion writers know there are always two sides to a story and that the statements they dish out are based on fact. This is the level in which opinion writers are expected to operate.
Most of them are deemed experts. Some are real experts in their own fields: often law, politics or human behavior. Some have been around for so long that they are experts out of habit—you know, the indolence in not challenging something that has always been there. Some are self-styled experts, shamelessly dropping the names of the VIPs with whom they are on first name basis, as though plain association with these people is enough to make them glow in the dark and command automatic deference.
And because of the apparent power attendant to the job, opinion writers, at some point or another, will find themselves facing temptations to use their spaces for the wrong reasons. They may use it to spite another individual or group, exert pressure on some, advance personal gain or snuggle up to the powers-that-be.
The worst thing an opinion writer can do, however, is to take his job for granted. Yes, he has no right to be lazy, even if he’s been doing the same thing for the last five, 15 or 50 years.
To be sure, it is a morally conflicting job. The most difficult part is wrestling with self-righteousness. It is always easy to look around and point out what is wrong, or, more conveniently, who is wrong and then proceed to lash out at the person. There is always the lure to make the problems of the world, or country, look easy as a high school algebra quiz and then to propose solutions.
But of course, the writer is just writing. He has no personal or professional stake at all in the crafting of the details or the implementation of those solutions.
Really, too, opinion writers are themselves ordinary people, faced with their own everyday battles between right and wrong, between evil and less evil.
So The Attitude, in fact, can be dispensed with.
Writing a column is identifying problems and criticizing officials, yes, but it is also lauding the good and suggesting ways to make things even better. It is championing a cause—gay rights, women’s rights, the environment—in spite of seeming futility. It is telling a story or sharing a dream. It is encouraging interaction, listening to feedback, and second-guessing what readers would most likely want to read about.
Ultimately, opinion writers should not stop at punctuating their pieces—not even when they get paid a lot (which is not the case, really) or when they rise to fame. They don’t accomplish anything until they are able to inspire people to think positively or nudge citizens and government officials into action.
This is the terrifying part: Imagine being given all this space, week after week, and not being able to inch closer to that ideal.
This, however, is the encouraging part: Every blank space is always an opportunity.