The Official Style and Opinion Pieces Written as Fact
Barbara J. Fields is an African-American woman born in Charleston, South Carolina in the 1950s. She is currently a Professor of American History at Columbia University. Prior to becoming a professor, she first earned a BA from Harvard followed by a PhD from Yale. Among many other achievements and awards, Fields was the first African-American woman at Columbia to receive tenure.
Being a professor at a prestigious university, Fields is highly educated. I believe she writes in the Official Style because after several years as a student in the education system, topped with even more years as a professor, she is used to writing in this formal practice. It is also possible she writes this way to give off an authority she feels she has earned. She has a PhD and she might want to profess her wisdom and knowledge onto others. In some cases it does not seem right to have such a vast amount of education and write plainly, thus she does not.
A noteworthy aspect of her writing is that she writes in a passive voice; however not quite as passive as other official style pieces. She uses the pronouns “we,” “our” and “their” to discuss a group of people, but she never includes the word “I.” If she did include “I” it may take away from her piece because it puts emphasis on the notion that these are just her opinions. By leaving herself out of the writing, her thoughts and ideas have a quality of higher power. Her thoughts are delivered as fact rather than opinion, in other words, it simply enhances the authoritative and knowledgeable tone.
It is evident Fields wants to discredit those whom support racial ideology because she states, “no one holding reputable academic credentials overtly adheres to the view that race is a physical fact.” This sentence should send off a red flag because she makes a very opinionative statement that can easily be seen as controversial. She basically states that those who disagree with her are not educated people. So, even though she keeps “I” out of the writing, as an African-American, she assumedly takes this topic personally. She was born in the south in the 1950s, for this reason, it is likely she has experienced racial discrimination in one form or another giving her writing bias. It is possible she wants to keep herself out of the writing because she wants to hide her bias as an African-American woman. First person might appear to extreme readers that Fields is bias because she is a part of a race that racial ideology negatively impacts prominently and not because she is specialized in this academic area.
Another way Fields utilizes the Official Style is through her lack of specificity. This is demonstrated in the phrase, “mediated by the social context within which the two come into contact.” This phrase has the air of Official Style because, well, it is rather confusing. It is not definitive because she does not state what the “two things” are within the sentence. Even in the previous sentence she never explicitly mentions, to my understanding, two obvious ideas, people or groups. If she replaced ambiguous phrases with exact information, clarity would be reached. However, the Official Style does not care about clarity and preciseness.
Similarly, Fields deliberately chooses her words carefully-- this can be seen in the sentence, “With a few well-publicized exceptions, no one holding reputable academic credentials overtly adheres to the view that race is a physical fact.” The words “holding,” “reputable,” “credentials,” “overtly” and “adheres” are thought-out word choices. She could have easily said, “A well educated person wouldn’t agree that race is a physical fact.” I believe she selected the words she did to illustrate that she is, in fact, an educated person, and she does not believe the notion of race being biological. Fields is discussing a not only serious matter, but a controversial one as well. I believe it is important to her to appear credible to her audiences. If she writes plainly, people might not accept what she is saying. But if she writes with great diction, more people might take her argument seriously. Audiences might read this and conclude that she is educated and well-versed; therefore, this piece of writing must be purposeful and accurate.
In the phrase “this line of inquiry has yielded” she makes calculated word choices as well. The words “line of inquiry” are striking because I question what it even represents. What does she mean a “line”? She could have made the decision to state what was so questioning, but she did not. Fields also could have chosen the word “stop” or “given up” to reach a wider audience, but she did not. Again, I believe this is her way of sounding well-read in order to get her point about racial ideology across.
These stylistic aspects may be praised by those in this particular academic field, but disliked in other activity systems. Opposing audiences, such as pro-racial ideologists, might view Fields’s wordiness as beating around the bush. Her work may be discredited because it is not clear and often difficult to follow. Students unfamiliar with this particular discipline may read her work and immediately view her as credible because they have been taught that the Official Style is a sign of credibility. Students may not understand the specifics of what Fields is discussing, but they walk away taking her view point as the only answer. On the other hand, students may view her piece as false because they notice the confusing sentences and get a sense she is attempting to hide a greater truth. People who have been discriminated against because of the idea of racial ideology might be passionate enough about the topic to be pleased with this work—no matter the level of confusion within Fields’s piece. All of these activity systems’ views pose implications because they judge the content based on stylistic choices or topic choice—not by the actual content, arguments or motives of Fields.
I believe Fields’s motives are to not only educate, but persuade others to view race differently. Her educational background paired with a list of honors and awards, suggests to me that her work is reliable and worthy of attention. Therefore, I do not determine her work to be dishonest or filled with idiocy. With that being said, she does have motives for writing this piece. She wants to persuade readers’ opinions on racial ideology-- otherwise she wouldn’t be challenging its notion. It also appears she wants to discredit those who disagree with her as seen in a previous example.
More generally, I think Fields’s piece helps raise questions on how the Official Style functions within an opinion piece. Fields writing is her opinion, whether it is widely accepted or not; however, she never utilizes the word “I.” I believe opinion writers as a whole avoid the first person because they want to present their work as fact. They want to persuade their readers to agree with them without blatantly presenting their work as only their point of view. Unless readers look closely, they might miss the authors’ true motives and agendas. The largest implication, in my opinion, that stems from the authors of these types of pieces is that they aren’t being honest with their readers. Their work may be riddled with opinion statements, but they are not presented that way and it gets confusing for readers—and these pieces are meant to be read. The largest implication that stems from readers is that no matter the activity system we are a part of, we often judge writing based on technique versus content. Passive voice, diction choice, and sentence structure are how we judge credible content. This is problematic because these are not always accurate ways to judge writing.
There are countless ways to interpret academic opinion pieces written as fact. It is important to note that not all of these pieces will result in the same analysis or conclusions. Each author will have their own agenda and purpose, but it necessary to question the possibilities of what they might be. It is also helpful to gain insight on the authors’ background to aid in determining their potential purpose(s).
- Madison N.