The importance of being earnest

Toula Foscolos
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“I became a journalist because I didn’t want to rely on newspapers for information,” said the late, great Christopher Hitchens in his usual acerbic, take-no-prisoners tone. I often go back to this line, when I think of ways to bring something different to the table; a new way of broaching a topic through my weekly column.

Toula's Take

A recent study conducted on how social media users acquire their information, concluded that most readers actually follow columnists rather than various news sources. It doesn’t surprise me. While news agencies are increasingly being viewed with suspicion and scepticism, and the subject of media bias rears its ugly head on a daily basis, readers tend to remain faithful to opinion columnists; even those they often don’t agree with.

While a column is not a news item, but rather an opinion piece written in response to news, I believe it can be as vital to the dissemination of information and democracy, as cold hard facts. A column allows for public conversation, for critical reflection, and, if attempted properly, a dialogue of the best kind.

Hitchens was a raconteur of genius, as well as a terrific researcher and debater, but what I loved most about his opinion pieces - even if he was sometimes a disagreeable man, with unsavoury whiffs of misogyny - was that he never underestimated the reader’s intellect.

The same goes for many columnists and bloggers I enjoy reading. I can throw out a quick list of favourites: Thomas L. Friedman and Maureen Dowd from the New York Times, Mark Morford from the San Francisco Gate, Pierre Foglia and Yves Boisvert from La Presse, Barbary Kay from the National Post, Genevieve Allard from Montreal Express, Henry Aubin from the Gazette, Dan Delmar from the Metropolitaine, Jerome Lussier and Simon Jodoin from Voir… It’s no secret that our favourites are usually the ones we agree with.

But often, it’s simply the ones that challenge us or make us think in a different way. That’s the power of a well-thought out blog or column.

Living in an unpolluted and innocuous bubble of smug self-satisfaction, by limiting our exposure only to what we agree with, may be preferable to us in the short term, but it allows for no growth.

“It is not enough to have ‘free’ speech; people must learn to speak and think freely,” Hitchens once wrote. It is only by being exposed to a multitude of points of view that one can begin to grasp the complex nature of any story. Nothing is really black and white and the truth is... often there is no truth. There are no absolutes for something so relative as life, and a columnist can often easily argue both sides of a debate. Like a Japanese saying goes, “the opposite of the truth can also be the truth.” Two opposing opinions can co-exist. Sometimes it’s even vital that they do.

2011 was a fantastic year of commenting, critiquing, expressing my point of view, getting lambasted by some and congratulated by others. It’s all in a day’s work. I routinely read the opinions of those I don’t agree with and sometimes I learn something and sometimes I am simply reminded of why I espouse the opinion that I do, but it’s necessary that I continue to do so, and I urge you, dear readers, to do the same.

Living in an unpolluted and innocuous bubble of smug self-satisfaction, by limiting our exposure only to what we agree with, may be preferable to us in the short term, but it allows for no growth. Read, read, read…

“Re-examine all you have been told. Dismiss what insults your Soul,” as Walt Whitman wrote. Get exasperated and throw your hands up in the air; argue your points. If you don’t agree, be ready to explain why.

Pulitzer prize-winning New York Times columnist Anne Quindlen once wrote: “I don’t write in order to make you think like me. I write to make you think.” That, in a nutshell, is a columnist’s job.

Organisations: New York Times, La Presse, National Post Pulitzer

Lieux géographiques: San Francisco Gate

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