My job is to write about controversial topics and offer my perspective on them. Over time, I’ve looked back on many of my opinions and found that I’ve changed my mind, become more entrenched in my beliefs, or in some cases, simply stopped caring. I’ve never really doubted my desire to write though. I always approach each column and issue from a sincere place, speak honestly, and open myself to criticism. That has always felt like enough.
For example, I wrote about the need for gun control in my last column. I am extremely fortunate that I’ve never lost a family member to gun violence, much less the horrific instance of a school shooting. I thought I had grounds to discuss the issue, as a concerned citizen, as the parent of a school-aged child, and as someone who might someday be a victim of a random mass shooting.
In the intervening weeks, a bipartisan gun control bill has taken shape. It has already passed the major procedural hurdle of a potential filibuster, and everyone seems to agree that the bill will become law.
As one might expect, I had a lot to say about the bill as a follow up to my last column. I was conducting my research and sharpening my arguments when I came across a tweet from Nicole Hockley. Her bio reads, “CEO at Sandy Hook Promise. Mom of Dylan, killed in Sandy Hook shooting, and Jake, who survived.” She wrote,
It made me pause. Suddenly my own justifications for speaking about the bill, especially critically, seemed insufficient. Honestly, who am I to talk about this bill? The first positive step forward on gun control in decades? A compromise that people who have felt a pain I can never fathom support?
I am sure that I could do a little digging and find victims of gun violence who agree with my perspective and lean on them as a crutch, pointing and saying, “See! It’s not just me!” But not only would that be exploitative, it would miss the point. Namely, what is my responsibility as a writer to respect the people affected by the topics I write about?
Writing about gun control is a particularly explosive issue especially when I am essentially using the deaths of children to make my argument. But my own sense of self-righteousness doesn’t grapple with the fact that affected people may read what I write. Is it right to subject them to more pain, to disagree publicly with them, because I think I am right?
The question holds for all sorts of other topics I write about as well. I’ve grappled with it when writing about other deaths as a result of domestic violence, police brutality, and other social ills. Ultimately, I convinced myself that I was doing more good than harm. I still believe that, but I’ve learned that it is my responsibility to seriously ask myself every time I write.
But after asking myself that question this time, I think this is commentary I should sit out. The victims of gun violence can speak more forcefully about the successes of this legislation than I can. Yes, I have the right to say what I want to say, but that doesn’t mean I have to exercise it every time.
At the end of the day, it is still my job to write about controversial topics, even the ones that I am still learning about. I am going to continue to do that because it is important to me and learning is a process. But I think maybe it is perfectly okay if I do more listening sometimes.
Jamil Ragland is a writer from the Hartford area. His work deals with politics, race and culture. Jamil lives in Hartford with his son.