I’ve always wondered whether my unending fascination with the way readers respond to my columns is driven by postmodern academic curiosity or just run-of-the-mill, college-kid narcissism. The semiotic way that these blocks of prose succeed or fail implies limitless insight on topics literary, political and philosophical, both specific to the College and general to news consumers everywhere.
But there’s also the nagging concern, forever in the back of my head, that maybe it’s just selfish fascination with myself and my ability to incite reactions in people I’ve never met just by tapping on a laptop every Sunday afternoon.
I’ll never really know the answer any more than I’ll know why I prefer one color to another. But it has made me achingly self-conscious about my role in the College community as a weekly columnist who has been called all sorts of flattering things by people who agree with my conclusions and everything from “provocative” to “dangerous” by the people who disagree.
This has made me realize two things. The first is that, as someone who is read somewhat frequently, my subjective opinions, for better or worse, carry some kind of small weight. I don’t know if I’ve changed anything, as there’s no control group of the College to show what things would have been like without me. For hypothetical purposes, let’s temporarily allow the possibility that these columns made some difference, whether good or ill.
This brings me to my second realization, which has been pointed out to me by critics and supporters alike: My columns usually discuss things I have a problem with or think require attention.
Such is the nature of limited space. Though I’d like to write 800 words appreciating Sam Sadler or SEAC, I doubt such columns would do much more than give the reader a brief warm-and-fuzzy feeling, whereas critical columns addressing (what I see as) problematic issues have the potential to encourage people to address or at least consider those issues, thereby maybe producing some kind of long-term, utilitarian good.
We return to the narcissist-postmodernist divide. The narcissist believes a critical column may influence the greater community into bringing about positive change. But the postmodernist suspects such columns do little more than upset people by revealing the inherent injustice of the world, that change is unlikely and that even if change occurs, there’s no way to objectively know whether the so-called progress was for better or worse.
Let’s pretend for a minute that my worst fears are true — that my columns make readers pointlessly unhappy. Then what? Though I remain convinced in-praise columns will never produce long-term results, they still make readers feel good, if briefly. We like to read good news. For obvious reasons, headlines rarely declare “everything is fine” or “nothing bad happened to any good people today,” but such non-news would at least give the reader a little encouragement. And, as my regular readers know, there is some discouraging stuff out there.
So I considered ending with a series of praises for deserving campus figures and institutions. I actually wrote out such a column — it was pretty long and recognized a number of people long overdue. But it never excited me. As most readers already know — though people like me and the very campus leaders I was ready to exalt continuously forget — political, social and cultural concerns, fascinating and important though they may be, are only secondary.
If I have learned anything from four years of covering student issues, it is that those issues will never take precedence over the personal relationships we cultivate in our few spare moments. Even if five students were elected to City Council or every student was denied the right to vote, even if Gene Nichol were reinstated as college president or conservative alumni abolished every facet of our education, it would never be as important as one real friendship, one true human relationship.
That is what I have learned from four years of writing and editing this paper, from hundreds of columns and articles, from 100,000 words written and each 10,000 times read, from countless hours researching, interviewing, writing, editing and editing some more.
Criticism or praise, none of it will ever be as important to me as the handful of friends, family and professors who are the reason I wake up in the morning, nor should it be to you. That is the one thing my inner postmodernist and narcissist can agree on.
Now put down this paper or turn off this computer and go tell someone you love them.
__Max Fisher is a senior at the College.__