An opinion, expressed in readable English

My childhood was regularly punctuated by screaming matches with my parents. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
My childhood was regularly punctuated by screaming matches with my parents. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
As anyone who has met me in real life can attest, I can be a bit of a hothead. My childhood was regularly punctuated by screaming matches with my parents, slammed doors, and angry protestations that I was going to run away from home and join the circus (I was quite a fan of Enid Blyton).

Needless to say, I feel strongly about things. I am now 28 years old, and can quite proudly say that I have not slammed a door, hurled my breakfast across the room, or run away from home for quite some time now. But I am still opinionated — and still often angry and upset about things I believe to be unfair, outrageous, or discriminatory.

I have been a columnist with the Otago Daily Times for over six years now. I do not claim any particular fame or renown, but I do have a sizable online community on social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram. Whenever I am particularly fired up about a current issue, I will send out a request on social media for commentary or insight from folks on the ground.

I am interested in hearing other people’s perspectives before I fully articulate my own. For example, with my recent column on Julian Batchelor’s racist Co-Governance speaking tour, I wanted to hear from people who had attended his events, be it as audience members or protesters.

And yet, despite making it quite clear that I am an opinion columnist and not a reporter, the usual accusations flood in. In the words of my detractors, I am biased! I am not objective! I have a clear agenda! I am in cahoots with the New World Order! I am trying to usher in communism!

Without fail, I am told that I should be fired for not presenting the "facts" in a clear and objective way. I argue until I am blue in the face that I’m actually not a reporter, let alone a war correspondent (sorry, Jim Moffat) — that I am a columnist, that my job is to provide commentary on current issues, to be entertaining, persuasive, enraging, and provocative. But it is to no avail.

And so, a quick primer is necessary for those confused about my role, although the heading in bold at the top of this page really ought to be enough of a clue. A columnist writes opinion pieces — short essays known as "op-eds", coloured by the writer’s personal point of view. A columnist may reflect upon current events and global news in an informative and engaging manner, utilising persuasive language to convince the reader to make informed decisions or consider an alternate perspective.

A reporter, on the other hand, gathers information from sources on an event of public interest and presents it in an unbiased manner. The resulting article should not be coloured by the reporter’s opinions, although it is important to note that the framing of a news article, the weight given to those interviewed, and the information that is often left out, can implicitly impart the writer’s viewpoint or biases.

As a child of the manse— specifically the eldest daughter of a fundamentalist Evangelical Presbyterian minister — I learned from a young age that my voice didn’t really matter. At my father’s knee, in the cold church pews, and via the Accelerated Christian Education home-schooling programme, I learned that I was destined for a quiet life as a mother and homemaker, with perhaps a short stint as a teacher or nurse prior to my inevitable marriage and quiverful of children.

I was not to speak in church or dare to occupy any leadership role over a man; I was to submit to the authority of my father, my brothers, the men in the congregation, and eventually my future husband. I was not to be shrill, opinionated, angry, outraged. I was not, in short, allowed to be human, to be myself.

Pulitzer Prize winner Anna Quindlen puts it best: "All of the qualities that you need to be a good opinion columnist tend to be qualities that aren’t valued in women".

And so I relish the opportunity to provide my opinion each fortnight in this column. There is something particularly vindicating about seeing my words in print — particularly those wherein I reflect on my upbringing, on sexism within the church, on mental health, on intersectional feminism and all those delightful topics that were so taboo in my childhood.

Both reporters and columnists are vital in our increasingly complex and globalised society, to hold those in power accountable, foster a well-informed citizenry, and provide reliable information and commentary. Op-eds also present opportunities for diverse voices in society to be heard.

Columnists have the power to make great changes. In a 2014 op-ed published in The Washington Post, Carol Anderson put forth the argument that the tumultuous events that unfolded after the 2014 Ferguson shooting were indicative of what she termed "white rage", namely white backlash against the progress made by African Americans. The op-ed garnered substantial attention, becoming one of the most widely read articles of the year, educating many on the historical context of anti-Black racism, and generating intense debate across the globe.

There are a great many columnists I admire, including Ronan Farrow, Dorothy Parker, and particularly Ben Goldacre, whose column "Bad Science," published in The Guardian every Saturday from 2003 until November 2011 did a marvellous job of debunking pseudo-science and exposing the inappropriate use of scientific principles.

The Otago Daily Times has always provided an outlet for varied social and political commentary, from founder Julius Vogel’s advocacy of provincial government, to the distasteful cartoons of Garrick Tremain, to the sharp observations of my predecessor, Millie Lovelock.

I hope to improve my role as an ODT columnist, and I truly appreciate all feedback, be it condemnatory or constructive. I hope to provoke discussion, to educate and inspire, to delight (or appal) my readers with vivid imagery, persuasive rhetoric, and personal anecdotes.

But as a columnist, I am under no obligation to expunge any form of personal opinion — or bias, if you will — from my writing.

By all means, take exception to the opinions I express in my columns. Shout your disagreement from the rooftops, send screeds of letters to my editor, come after me on social media, if you like. But don’t be confused about what it is that I actually do. To quote another Pulitzer Prize winner, Harold C. Schonberg, "It’s not a critic’s job to be right or wrong; it’s his job to express an opinion in readable English".

 - Jean Balchin, a former English student at the University of Otago, is studying at Oxford University after being awarded a Rhodes Scholarship.