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When I got married last summer, I knew I would keep my last name. Many female journalists do that anyway, having already built a “brand” on their maiden names. I’m a columnist at The Globe, writing about political and social issues – everything from Canada’s engagement with China to Meghan and Harry’s royal exit. My role tends to elicit a disproportionate level of attention, attacks, praise, prodding and the occasional unsolicited photo of a stranger’s genitalia, so I thought it prudent to separate my new home life from my professional one. I didn’t want to one day be sitting in a parent-teacher interview, wondering if my kid’s teacher read my latest screed about union negotiations, thinking I shouldn’t have burdened my children with such a conspicuous association.
That occasional bleed into your personal life is one of the few significant drawbacks of an otherwise wonderfully challenging and privileged position. Indeed, it can be awkward to sit among dinner party guests as they chide the local library for failing to ban a controversial speaker, when you just wrote an 800-word screed arguing the opposite. But to survive as a columnist means to find a degree of comfort in a state of perpetual discomfort: if your columns aren’t eliciting spirited responses from diverse readers, you’re probably doing the whole column-writing thing wrong. Indeed, the worst thing a columnist can be is boring. The second-worst thing is predictable.
A current affairs columnist should combine the principles of good journalism (research, sourcing, context, fact-checking) with a strong opinion or argument. That first part is what separates your average Joe with a Medium account from a professional opinion writer, and the second part – the argument part – is what makes the position a particularly privileged and powerful one. Whereas an objective news report about a politician’s wrongdoing can level a certain degree of heat on his office, a well-written, forceful, perfectly framed column can be incredibly galvanizing. That’s the power – and purpose – of opinion-writing in mainstream news outlets: writers can say things in ways that would be verboten for objective news reporters.
Whenever I write a column, I inevitably hear from people who either love what I wrote (often because they agree with me), hate what I wrote (often because they disagree with me), or wish to share a visual update on their gonads (which either has everything or nothing to do with what I wrote – I’m not sure). But it’s not always obvious which columns will elicit the most blowback. I was confident, for example, that I would get rather lively emails for poking holes in 5G COVID-19 conspiracy theories, but I didn’t expect the angry responses I received for a column on the Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer’s flip-flop on masks. Many readers thought I was undermining the authority of Dr. Theresa Tam. My argument, however, was that she was doing that herself. In the end, it made for a thought-provoking discussion.
To that point: the worthiest response any opinion writer can get from a reader is a message that conveys that a column was successful in shifting his or her thinking. I once heard from a reader who was originally frothing at the notion that a man who killed his pregnant partner wouldn’t serve time specifically for the death of his fetus, but who reconsidered, realizing his position wouldn’t really mean justice for women in the end.
It’s a rare thing to hear, especially at a time when people seeking confirmation of their existing biases have innumerable options for doing so. But it’s nevertheless what I strive for when I sit down to write: I don’t want to appeal to those who already agree with me; I want to have a debate with those who do not.
Inevitably, however, that impulse to debate – or challenge, or provoke, or explore – will run afoul of public opinion. I have written columns for which people have called for my firing, e-mailed my bosses, tried to hack into my personal social media accounts and even where colleagues have, both internally and publicly, characterized my writing as destructive and dangerous (some of the angriest feedback I’ve ever gotten was in response to a column I wrote for my previous employer, the CBC, on Quebec’s secularism law). That last reaction is typically the hardest to shrug off, and it’s something that now-former New York Times columnist Bari Weiss referenced when she resigned from the paper earlier this month. Thankfully, I have never experienced anything close to the internal toxicity Weiss described, but I can appreciate the tension that comes with penning an unpopular opinion.
Veteran columnists like the late Christie Blatchford know how to respond to bad-faith, ad hominem attacks with a hearty middle finger. Fiercely devoted to her work, she was a thorn in the side of many in institutions of power as she chronicled the failures of the child welfare system, of provincial policing, of the court process and of good government. Had she cowed to her critics on any one topic, she would’ve neglected the people for whom she advocated on another. Certainly Ms. Blatchford knew that, which is why she gave her middle finger such a workout.
I have yet to achieve that level of dexterity in my digits, but I endeavour to follow Ms. Blatchford’s example of focusing more on the work, and less on the noise. And by keeping my old name, and thus, distancing my work from my husband and any future children, I can try to spare them some of that noise, too.
What else we’re thinking about:
When I need to turn my brain off, and focus on something good, I search #canineaac on Instagram and get swallowed in a world where dog-owners teach their pups to communicate by pressing buttons on a specially designed board that spit out one-word requests or demands. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a Sheepadoodle named “Bunny” press buttons to ask her mom for a trip to the park.
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