I don’t hide from those who ask that I’m usually not the biggest fan of the Nass’ “PrinceWatch” series, but often I have to admit that it is justified. Despite its general holier-than-thou ethos and smarm, the columns tend to do a good job pointing out salient issues with some less-than-ideal Prince coverage. The second-most-recent iteration, penned by Joshua Leifer, called out a couple pieces of news for poor presentation and bias (a sentiment I agreed with) and a couple of opinion columns for worse-than-usual conceptualization and execution (a sentiment with which I agreed less but can still understand). In general, I appreciate the series’ ostensible goal of keeping the paper honest, and understand the desire to try to break down the kinds of cultural stagnation we at the Prince are often accused of perpetuating.
Inevitably, this sentiment will be heavily colored by the fact that I am the one called out in the piece in question, but I disagree with Susannah Sharpless’ most recent “PrinceWatch” installment more than I typically do. In it, she accuses me, fellow columnist Christian Wawrzonek, and ex-Prince EIC Marcelo Rochabrun of “seek[ing] to monopolize campus discourse by smothering all dissenting opinions.” The piece indicts us as those who would refuse to “engaging with [snarky comments] for what they hold or what they are,” instead bemoaning the “anonymous shade” we’ve received. More than anything, the piece rips apart the newspaper’s “total inability to let opposing viewpoints speak even from tiny little anonymous boxes at the bottom of articles.”
With all due respect (and, admittedly, given the invective in the “PrinceWatch” piece, I don’t think I owe that much), I feel that Ms. Sharpless has missed the point. I find it interesting that she would criticize me as someone intending to “smother all dissenting opinions,” as that is exactly the opposite of what my piece tries to do. Demeaning the excellent work done in other publications on campus is the last thing I want, even though I understand that a poor job of expressing that idea might make it seem like I believe that the Prince is the only “legitimate” discussion forum on campus. The fact that an 1800-word review I wrote was published in the very same Nass issue as the “PrinceWatch” column in question should demonstrate that to at least some extent.
So, when Ms. Sharpless interprets my column as saying that we should show unswerving “allegiance to the Prince simply because it is the Prince: old, famous, and respected,” I feel the only way to respond is by saying that this claim is exactly the opposite of what I’m arguing. Despite whatever miniscule cultural capital the Prince might hold simply because it has the kind of funds to be able to print daily and distribute itself to every dining hall in the morning, there’s absolutely no reason students (or, really, anyone) shouldn’t call it out if it does something they disagree with. After all, we’re a bunch of late teenagers and early 20-somethings writing bi-weekly columns on a tight schedule, even if we don’t really know what we think. If any age group has dumb opinions, it’s ours. The same goes for the rest of the publications on campus, obviously, which is why the kind of cross-campus and cross-publication dialogue Ms. Sharpless and I support is so important to our ideological well-being as students and responsible citizens.
This brings me to my main critique of the “PrinceWatch” piece: it’s actually the kind of constructive response to blustering Prince articles for which I’m advocating in my column. When I quote Ryan Holiday (from the book Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator, a phenomenal indictment of new-media news coverage and its failings) on snark, he and I are talking specifically about the useless, throwaway remarks which are ultimately meaningless but are upvoted anyway regardless of their relevance or quality. When I say that comments that don’t warrant a response are unhelpful, I’m talking about those that don’t warrant any kind of response. If the only possible response is, as Ms. Sharpless puts it, that the comment “ma[kes] a really freakin’ good point,” that’s a valid response to a valid argument, and the comment in question would be the kind of response I wholeheartedly support. A comment like “lol, this is one lame-ass article” is the kind of snark against which I’m railing; a solid rebuttal, on the other hand, is almost never bad, no matter how irreverent.
I find it just a tad ironic, then, that my article was the impetus for rallying around free discourse and snark in the name of supporting “a form of subversion,” something at which I purportedly sneer. I understand that my all-too-brief explication of snark may have seemed at first glance “conservativ[e],” but given that I strongly believe in the power of constructive dialogue in subverting oppressive power structures and institutions, that’s absolutely not how I intended to define it. One of the few places where I actually disagree with an idea Ms. Sharpless brings up is when she professes to “identif[y] a Prince-wide tendency towards conservatism and regressivism.” On a really macro level — the way the paper’s decisions are made, the lack of communication between various departments, the Editorial Board — I think the idea has some merit. By including this sentence, though, Ms. Sharpless implicates me (and countless other writers who disapprove to some extent of the way the Prince is run) as an agent of that oppressive conservatism, a proponent of propping up various repressive concepts of power which I’ve worked for years — both within formal constraints and without — to dismantle.
I take especial issue with her claim that I “drench [my] whole article with a capitalistic sheen, implying that something is only good if it produces a tangible result.” Maybe I’m misguided in this view, but I don’t think there’s anything particularly “capitalistic” about wanting to see some form of an idealized society in which, rather than simply leaving substance-free comments on a news article, we can use what we perceive as a wrong opinion as a jumping-off point to discuss why, exactly, that opinion is wrong. I do in fact want to be able to see a “tangible result” from the system I have in mind. I want to be able to see a pluralistic dialogue which involves as many voices as possible, one that doesn’t assume that anything is “unquestionable” and one in which nothing exists in causa sui, “existing in a self-created and self-policed vacuum.” If this vision is “capitalistic,” then so be it.
The “snark” against which I argue in my column doesn’t really have a place in this world I envision. Writing something like “This is such a bad opinion article I don’t even know how to comment on it” would fall into the kind of “inefficacy” I describe. Explaining why that article is bad, on the other hand, would not. I don’t want anyone to “tone it down in the name of bettering the Prince” — staying with the Prince, for a moment, the only way we will actually be able to “better” it, if that is desirable in the first place, is by leveling well-constructed, thoughtful criticism at the paper at full blast.
If I were concerned about preserving my own self-image and keeping intact ideas I hold that might very well be completely wrong, I wouldn’t be writing for any publication on campus, least of all the Prince. As I alluded to in my original column, I very much care about how I present my opinions. The “self-congratulatory caring” I mentioned in some form refers to those who, as Ms. Sharpless points out, “honestly think they deserve congratulations for simply giving a fuck.” I try my best not to be one of those people (though I’m uncomfortably aware of their existence within all campus publications I’ve read), and in order to maintain that position, I need to be held accountable for what I say when I say it. (I do think Ms. Sharpless is grasping at straws a bit when she calls the phrase “self-applauding,” something in Merriam-Webster’s database, a “dissonant hobgoblin,” two words arguably more dissonant than the first phrase in question, but that’s a discussion for another time.)
Obviously, I could have made this argument clearer in my original column. It might have helped if the column had included non-snarky ways to contribute to campus discussion which don’t revolve around the Prince. I originally included a small section which mentioned a few non-Prince-based ways to change the campus dialogue for the better (including a suggestion to contribute to the “PrinceWatch” series, ironically enough), but that section was axed before publication by forces outside of my control. I expressed my frustration about that to those involved at the time, as I felt it would be a much more solid piece if it had acknowledged the kind of work that other campus publications conduct. However, I realize upon rereading that this section alone might not have changed the tone and general message of the column, and I regret that I wasn’t able to express my ideas in a clearer way. In that sense, I really do appreciate the “PrinceWatch” column Ms. Sharpless wrote.
Of course, I do think that there’s some merit to the idea that ideological criticism shouldn’t be quite so vitriolic. When I ask that responses and comments don’t engage with the original work in a venomous way, I don’t do so because I’m afraid of receiving a few blows to my ego and don’t want to see anything negative about my oh-so-precious work. I do so because I like to think I’m a rational human who isn’t set in stone about any of his beliefs. I will necessarily respond more positively to those who critique my ideas while treating those ideas as though they come from a legitimate place than to those who rip my ideas to shreds without any respect for the person who holds them. Part of the reason I’m so passionate about demolishing racist/sexist/homophobic/transphobic/classist power structures in which we’ve all been socialized is because I was exposed to many people in the former camp during high school who were able to broaden my parochial suburban views on terms that made me feel like it actually mattered if I were able to see things differently. If those people were to have fallen into the latter camp instead, I can’t say for sure I’d house the same sentiments I do today.
The venom in the “PrinceWatch” series in general notwithstanding, the issue I take with Ms. Sharpless’ piece, in sum, is that in extrapolating from an altogether-too-short definition of snark, it misunderstands what I’m actually arguing, something which is natural with a piece as short as mine but which is still just a bit unfair. Ms. Sharpless argues against what she perceives to be the core of my column by saying that “to write—and to publish—two pieces dismissing mean comments is to legitimize them.” Legitimizing those “mean comments” is exactly what I’m trying to do. In denouncing snark, I’m not denouncing the kind of arguments which take thought and effort to create. If an argument is meaty enough for a writer to respond, whether with counterpoints of his own or a simple “I guess you’re right,” then that argument is something my column would champion.
I would not call Ms. Sharpless’ “PrinceWatch” column snarky. Is it vituperative? Yes. Is it sanctimonious? Maybe a little. But is it the kind of response to a Prince article I want to see? Absolutely. Being your average nihilistic, always-exhausted Princeton student, there aren’t many things about which I can muster enough energy to care. Keeping an open, vibrant, and all-encompassing dialogue which exists across all levels of society will always be one of the things which falls into that shrinking category, and nothing — not least of which a poorly-written Prince column — should ever belie that sentiment.