On Sept. 6, 2015, the Argus Opinion section ran the article “Why Black Lives Matter Isn’t What You Think.” The article mischaracterized the Black Lives Matter movement and, among several other problems, suggests that the movement could be characterized as a hate group. The campus responded with outrage, there were debates about cutting funding to The Argus, and the writer of said article went on to write a follow-up article for the New York Times. Since the piece was published more than four years ago, most students who are on campus today will have no recollection of the uproar it caused. Yet, this article has continued to affect Wesleyan, The Argus, and the Opinion section years after its publication.
When I first came to campus as a transfer student, I had no sense of any stigmas surrounding The Argus, or the Opinion section. I was having trouble adjusting to Wesleyan, to say the least. I had a tuition cost that necessitated that I work over 20 hours a week to be allowed a place here, and a university that insisted I should only work under 20 hours or else I’d be too stressed. I learned to look at my bank account every Friday and crunch numbers to figure out whether I could afford to replace my $30 Old Navy jeans that had a gaping hole in the thighs. Expressing these difficulties in the Opinion section was a means for me to find a space at Wesleyan and to feel as though I wouldn’t have to rupture from carrying all of that shit around with me. It made me feel as though I was channeling all of that negative energy productively, like writing it down might bring about some change.
It didn’t take long, though, to figure out that many students felt discomfort with The Argus. On occasion, I would mention my role as a staff writer, and people would make a face, some of them would outright tell me that they didn’t like the publication. A lot of people didn’t really know why they didn’t like The Argus, concretely. Some told me that it was just a very white publication, and as a result had glaring blind spots. Others still pointed to the infamous Black Lives Matter article as the source of their disdain.
It wasn’t until I became assistant editor of the Opinion section that I recognized patterns in who was submitting to the Opinion section and what they were choosing to write about. Though I viewed my writing for the section as an opportunity for activism and catharsis, I realized that most of our writers were not taking the same angle. Most of our contributors are white men, and they often choose to focus on broader political issues, global issues, or just make arguments about ways that one should interpret the self or exist in the world. None of these are bad things, but they say something about how our contributions orient themselves toward the world and about who feels comfortable sharing their opinion in our section.
It wasn’t too far into the semester that we got our first controversial piece. This sparked debate in our editorial team. We were suddenly faced with issues of what the Opinion section actually means, what it stands for, who it’s here to serve. We had to have the censorship debate and ask ourselves whether we were obligated to publish this opinion simply because it was an opinion which existed. We questioned whether it would be ethical to squelch a conservative voice on a liberal campus. Among a group of mostly white people, we discussed whether the article was overtly racist or subtly racist or would be perceived as racist. In the end, we were able to solve the issue without giving a platform to harmful rhetoric. But for me, the problem existed in the fact that we were having these debates to begin with. How could we question whether we were giving enough representation to a person who was a part of the same demographic as most of our writers? How could we presume that we were able to decide what was racist? But this was the Opinion section, and after all, it was only their opinion.
It might be easy to point to the infamous Black Lives Matter article as the source of our problems, to say that that’s why people don’t want to write for us, because of that one incident. But the truth is that the Black Lives Matter article was a product of our process, of whose voices we amplified in the section, on the basis that we have an obligation to print any and all opinions. While we may have become a little more nuanced about not letting the really racist stuff go to print, the fact of the matter is that our processes remain similar. We are still entertaining the arguments that allow potentially racist rhetoric a platform. We are still calling a refusal to air potential harmful rhetoric censorship.
I would argue that not every voice should be given an equal amount of space in the Opinion section, especially if that voice is espousing a harmful opinion. I would also argue that a refusal to print a piece is not censorship, especially since censorship is always conducted by a government entity. Rather, refusal to print something is a simple refusal of a platform. We need to acknowledge that while everyone might be entitled to their opinion, not every opinion is entitled to a platform. Until we recognize this, we will be pushing away people who might genuinely want the space, the voice, the catharsis that I know the Opinion section can provide.
While I am not trying to push away or demonize our current contributors, I am saying that we need to be careful and intentional about what kinds of rhetoric we allow on our platform, because nothing is just an opinion. We also need to continue to listen to the students who still feel discomfort with this section. And after we listen, we need to do what we can to change. To students who do not feel welcome on this section, I would like to say that your voice is welcome here, that there is a space for you here. But I know that I can’t just say that and make it true. We as a publication cannot just say that. We have to work towards it. We have to prove it.
Katie Livingston is a member of the class of 2021 and can be reached at email@example.com.