January 20, 2020

SULLIVAN BAKER | In Defense of Hot Takes in The Sun

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While sitting in Zeus, you absentmindedly scroll through Facebook, past a flash of red. You register that you skimmed something you didn’t like. You scroll back up. Uh oh, it’s another The Cornell Daily Sun opinion piece with a dramatic title and 43 comments.  You’ve just encountered a hot take, a column with a controversial argument that might not be all that “woke.”

A piece that’s part of this storied genre might rail against funding for Planned Parenthood, it might defend the legacy admissions system or it might discuss the isolating experience of being a Christian on campus. These columns, which fall across the political spectrum, tend to bring Ithaca’s notorious Facebook trolls out of the woodwork, evoke mainstream campus derision, and spawn many memes. But I’ve learned to embrace them, and you should too.

Each week, I can be confident that I’ll open The Sun and find at least one column, guest room piece or letter to the editor that irks, offends or makes me complain to my friends about how wrong I think the author is. But these spicy opinions are valuable precisely because they make many readers uncomfortable.

In challenging us, hot takes help us better understand the community we inhabit. We have a natural tendency to isolate ourselves and associate with those who share our perspectives, identities and life experiences; we feel safer and more comfortable that way. And the security we find in these communities helps us cope with the Cornell grind. But we should come to The Sun to be challenged; the paper is a tool we can use to break out of our silos and gain a better sense of the values that guide other members of our campus community.

Understanding diverse viewpoints has intrinsic value — we should strive to be in tune with broad segments of the community we inhabit — and practical value. Columns that shed light on unpopular opinions can help us build empathy with campus communities where such opinions prevail, communities that also have a legitimate stake in the future of our university and might have unavoidable influence beyond the confines of campus.

Empathy and an ability to contend with views antithetical to our own benefit us when we’re forced to leave the social shelters we tend to create. And we’ll soon be thrown into a wider world, one where safe harbor is harder to find and a boomer will probably sign our paychecks. It’s not enough to just read controversial columns without pushing ourselves to consider the fellow Cornellian behind the words on the page —  and the myriad others the author represents.

Give people the benefit of the doubt, assume they have a genuine spirit of good-will and see if you can get at why they’ve chosen to write what they’ve published. This isn’t easy, and sometimes you might just find it impossible to empathize with or appreciate the perspective of some authors — I fail to do so all the time. But it’s worth a shot.

Of course, building empathy doesn’t mean blindly accepting someone’s perspective as truth.  When we can contend openly with views and values that stand in contrast to our own, we become better advocates for the causes we believe in. As free speech advocates consistently point out, it’s impossible to refute an argument you don’t understand, and anyone expressing an opinion in The Sun exposes it to criticism.

Though the opinion page must be a clearinghouse for diverse perspectives, a line has to be drawn somewhere; some content does not contribute productively to campus discourse. And I’ve helped argue that my editors erred by publishing one such article, a recent piece about mental healthcare. But The Sun’s editors don’t get it wrong very often, and the Cornellians whose voices give life to The Sun’s opinion page almost always deserve a fair airing of their views — even if some of them deserve also to have their perspectives challenged.

So the next time The Sun publishes a column that irks you (maybe even this one does), consider countering with a 300-word letter to the editor or a 900-word guest column, which you can email to opinion@cornellsun.com. Believe me, my editors love to publish discourse, so if you submit a well-written and thoughtful response to something published in The Sun, there’s a good chance they’ll choose to run it. Embrace your reactions to the hot takes you disagree with, but also try to step back and appreciate the insight and the opportunity they offer.

 

John Sullivan Baker is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at jsullivanbaker@cornellsun.com. Regards to Davy runs every other Tuesday this semester.