This post does not reflect the views of The Phillipian Editorial Board CXXXVII
The goal of this post is to give some general understanding and make more transparent the decision-making process of the Commentary Editors (or at least, myself specifically) in determining what we consider to be appropriate to run. Up until this fall, there was no protocol for such decisions, and they were simply left up to the discretion of relevant members of the editorial board. Over the summer, however, Ryan Brigden (Managing Editor CXXXVII) and I began work on a set of Commentary Policies (still in their nascent, unofficial state) that would define exactly what elements could disqualify an article from publication.
The first and most obvious of these policies was that Commentary (and the entire paper, for that matter), would not publish hate speech. This has long been a rule of The Phillipian, but I had not found it actually written anywhere during my tenure as Editor, and so Ryan and I codified it as a tangible policy.
The American Bar Association defines hate speech as that which “offends, threatens, or insults groups, based on race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, disability, or other traits.” Our policy (again, still unofficial) is similar, though slightly more explicit and specific to The Phillipian.
But the problem is, I don’t think this is enough. I don’t think simply preventing hate speech protects our community to the extent that it should. Because language can be a tool of violence, and as an Editor, it is my responsibility to protect my community from such violence (if you haven’t, read Janine Ko’s article on how language can be dangerous)
Before I define more specifically these types of articles that, while not containing hate speech, are still particularly harmful, I would like to address one question that I am often asked: isn’t it better to publish articles with hurtful opinions so that those ideas are in the public sphere and can therefore be addressed directly?
Actually, no, it isn’t.
It’s one thing for hurtful opinions to be said in private conversation, so that yes these opinions can be addressed, but more importantly, because freedom of speech and opinion is the quintessential American right, and the idea of silencing people in their own homes is a terrifyingly literal interpretation of Big Brother. What people do in private is entirely up to them, and I do not intend to, and have no wish to infringe upon that right.
That being said, I don’t think hurtful opinions should have a public platform, be it social media, the Chapel lectern, or the Commentary Section. Because this suggests they have a public credence. This suggests they are valid ideas that should be listened to and taken seriously; the fact of the matter is, however, not all opinions are ideas are valid, and not all opinions should be taken seriously.
So what are these types of opinions that are “hurtful” but that aren’t hate speech? A lot of the time, what separates actual, defined hate speech from a hurtful opinion is the presence of good intentions, “solid evidence,” or both.
The best way to discuss these types of opinions is through examples of hypothetical articles, so I will give two. The first (“article one”) is an article written by an African-American student, arguing against affirmative action on the basis that most African-Americans simply do not have the educational background to attend an institution of higher learning. The second (“article two”) is an article written by a heterosexual student, arguing in favor of gay conversion therapy to combat high suicide rates among LGBTQ youth.
The first question I would ask, when reading one of these articles is, is it from the standpoint of an individual (or group) that has been historically and/or institutionally marginalized and/or oppressed with regards to some aspect of its identity (race, gender, class, ability, etc…), or a group that has historically and/or institutionally derived privilege with regards to the aforementioned aspect of identity?
This question is actually quite easy to answer. Looking at article one we can see that it is from an African-American student, arguing against something (affirmative action) that has historically benefited racial minorities, and in particular African-American students. With respect specifically to authorial perspective, there is little to no chance that this article could be perceived as offensive or harmful.
Article two, on the other hand, is a different story. Its author is a heterosexual student, arguing in favor of something (gay conversion therapy) that has repeatedly been used to oppress members of LGBTQ minority groups. This fact doesn’t immediately disqualify this article from publication (again, preventing people from publishing certain opinions solely on the basis of their identity would be censorship), but it raises a red flag.
The second question I would ask is, does this article associate a negative opinion or occurrence with an aspect of an individual’s (or group’s) identity that has historically resulted in the marginalization or oppression of that individual (or group), e.g. femininity, black skin, homosexuality, etc…? (Bear in mind that an article directly claiming some aspect of identity is “bad” – or otherwise negative – is simply hate speech.)
This question is more difficult to answer. Let’s look at article one. In the context of Western society, I think most of us would agree that lack of education background (and resulting inability to attend an institution of higher learning) is a negative quality. Furthermore, the article associates an aspect of a group’s identity (African-Americanism) with said lack of education. This question is answered in the affirmative, which, again, doesn’t necessarily disqualify it from publication, but is potentially concerning.
We find article two answering this question similarly in the affirmative. The implication of the author’s solution is that if we rid individuals of their LGBTQ-ness (via gay conversion therapy), they will be less likely to commit suicide. The author is therefore associating a negative occurrence (suicide) with a facet of a group’s identity (belonging to an LGBTQ minority). This raises another red flag.
The third and final question I would ask myself is, does the article consider historical context?
This is not something that can be known simply from analyzing an article’s thesis or an understanding of the author’s (or authors’) background(s). In other words, historical context, if considered, falls under the classification of “evidence,” i.e. support for the thesis, and will therefore be found in the meat of the article. An article that doesn’t consider historical context also raises a red flag.
So let’s say article two does not consider historical context, and therefore has been classified as potentially offensive or harmful by to all three of the above questions. It is still not disqualified from publication. It is impossible to make any final decisions regarding the article without first considering the solution it proposes to the problem discussed.
The solution proposed by article two is gay conversion therapy – one that has historically been used to marginalize and oppress members of the LGBTQ community, and is therefore generally not considered to be in line with the practices of the LGBTQ community. The solution is inappropriate and the article cannot run.
Now let’s say, for the sake of argument, that article two’s solution was proposed healthcare legislation offering free psychiatric consultations to at-risk LGTBQ youth (let’s specify that these doctors would be presumably not be practitioners of gay-conversion therapy). Could this article run, even though it has it has been classified as harmful, according to the three above questions? Yes, because its solution (free psychiatric consultations) is a relatively unbiased one. Furthermore, psychiatric treatment (excluding the practice of gay conversion therapy) has not been used, historically, to oppress or marginalize members of LGBTQ minorities.
It’s pretty easy to see that the original version of article two is coming from good intentions. The author wants to combat high suicide rates among LGBTQ youth, an admirable goal and one that any member of the LGBTQ community would respect. Nevertheless, intention doesn’t matter, particularly in the context of Commentary. An article that is going to cause harm will do so regardless of whether or not the author intended it to.
To reiterate, these are just the questions I ask myself when I edit Commentary. My fellow editors, the copy editors, and members of Upper Management read through articles as well, and of course can overrule me if they disagree, feel that I am being unfair, or feel that the section leans too much towards any one standpoint. Furthermore, this article belies the entire process of working with writers that is so central to Commentary in ensuring that all voices are heard, that all writers are comfortable with the product that is article under their name, and that all writers understand why an article might or might not run.
And I will be the first to admit, that when it comes to opinion, there is no completely unbiased way to evaluate an article. If being a Commentary Editor has taught me anything, it is that nothing is objective, and therefore that truth and morality are inherently relative. Any structure I could impose (even my three questions) is inherently flawed. There is absolutely no definitive way to say what is correct (factually or morally).
I’m trying to outline some of what goes through my head when I look at the Commentary Google Drive folder for the week ahead. But in reality, it’s impossible to do so – none of this is a formal, codified process, and it likely won’t ever be. It’s just editing. It’s what we do.
– Lily Grossbard, Commentary Editor CXXXVII