I was intrigued but also a bit dubious as to how valuable The OpEd program would be for me as an academic: I wasn’t short of confidence that I had something to say. But in the course of the day I came to recognize that I had been stymied by fear of the opprobrium that could be attracted by writing on controversial topics. The seminar challenged me to overcome that fear by thinking about what I might have to say that others might need to hear. That (plus a hardnosed discussion of how to cope with hateful comments online: get someone to screen them) gave me the commitment to write on a controversial topic – gun control, seen from the perspective of the ancient Greek and Roman view of the threat posed by weapons to citizen equality in public spaces.
The week after the seminar, I wrote a draft of the idea in relation to the ‘hook’ of a new ‘open carry’ law in Oklahoma – submitted it – and was rejected by a number of places.
Then the horrific killings in Newtown happened, followed by the debate about new legislation on gun control in Washington DC and in many states. I rewrote my piece, submitted it more places, and was rejected again. At that point, I asked for the help of a Mentor Editor. James Ledbetter of Thomson Reuters advised me to expand the piece and turn it upside down: instead of starting with Thucydides, I started with the American founders and only then came to why they – and we – might think about the ancient Greeks and Romans on how weapons threaten equality. I was delighted when the revised piece was accepted by the New Yorker culture blog: and also got great feedback from a national newspaper that has asked me to submit directly to their editorial team in future.
And on the controversy: the piece did attract some hateful comments, as well as some thoughtful and instructive ones. But one pleasant surprise was that every single person who took the trouble to look up my email address, sent a positive response, some overwhelmingly so. I had feared a stream of hateful emails; instead, I was glad to find so many people who had been stimulated by the piece – who had needed to hear what The OpEd program helped me to say.
Melissa Lane is professor of politics at Princeton University. In 2013-14, she is on sabbatical as a Fellow of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, supported also by having been named a 2012 Fellow of the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation. She is the author of several books, most recently Eco-Republic: What the Ancients Can Teach Us about Ethics, Virtue, and Sustainable Living (Princeton, 2012) and will be recording a lecture and conversation for the radio program ‘Philosophy Talk’ to be broadcast later this spring; podcasts of interviews with her about philosophy can also be found through www.philosophybites.com.