Opinion: Why did you print that hateful thing?

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Every so often, the Times’ Opinion pages run something so provocative and controversial, even non-readers say they’re canceling their subscriptions. The latest example was Sunday’s Op-Ed by Charlotte Allen, in which the author went after atheists with broad-brushed spite. If you will allow me to make a sweeping generalization, opinion pieces that make such sweeping generalizations are laughably easy to debunk. They may have an element of truth, but it’s wrapped in an assertion that takes moments to disprove.

So why run them? Let me answer that as an outsider on the Op-Ed decision-making process, but as a regular reader of the results. (And yes, I do have to pay for my subscription.) The goal of the page is to get you to think about important things. Some pieces try to do that by telling you something you didn’t know but should be concerned about; others take a familiar topic and try to make you look at them in a new way. Allen isn’t the first to take the gloves off, or to use hyperbole as a way to get readers to sharpen the edges of an issue. Although we’re not exactly Provacteurs Inc., we regularly run pointed material from the likes of Bill Maher. Nor do theists have a monopoly on our page. In addition to the aforementioned Maher, see, e.g., our Sam Harris op-ed from a couple years ago, which ran on Christmas Eve. How’s that for provocative?

Find us guilty, then, of running material that occasionally pushes your buttons harder than you care to have them pushed. By inspiring you to defend your beliefs, we hope we’re also prodding you to think about them. It’s not necessarily to change your mind; believe me, we’re not invested in the outcome of your debate over whether there is a God. (From the capitalization, you can tell where I stand on that issue. I’m not going to debate you on the merits of faith over empiricism, I just hope you’ll find your way to my side some day.) Nor are we trying to generate controversy in order to sell newspapers (that’s not our job, it’s the circulation department’s) or advertisements (that’s why we have ad sales people). As an opinion section, our role is to stimulate you to have new opinions and defend the ones you already hold. In this changed era of newspapering, we also hope that you will interact with us and each other on these topics. If we have any grubby capitalistic motive here, it would be to build a bigger audience of regular readers, which our friends in the ad sales department may some day find a way to monetize. We do that by sharing the views of interesting, thought-provoking and, in some cases, infuriating writers.

I recognize that the imprimatur of a big newspaper brand increases the sting of denunciations like Allen’s. We’re not merely the conduit for her views, we’re the soapbox, the amplifier. But her piece, like all Op-Eds, should be considered in the continuum of opinions offered on that page. That’s not to say you shouldn’t complain when we run a piece that goes too far. It’s just a reminder that there is a mix of voices, day in and day out (with counterpoints, too, such as this response to Allen by P.Z. Myers). I don’t like stridency as a reader, but I don’t like agreeability, either. I want to be pushed, because that makes me think.