Content versus Style, Censorship versus Editing

By Ariella Gottesman
On December 8, 2011

Now that the brouhaha has reached its apex, I might as well throw my own two cents into the fray.

The recent article in the "YU Beacon," "How Do I Even Begin To Explain This" has come under many criticisms. Being the busybody that I am, I like to ask people what they think.

I found that the responses fell under two categories: criticizing the content or the style, and these two types took on different nuances from different people.

Some criticized the content straight out, claiming premarital sex is not appropriate to discuss in this forum, ought not be associated with the name of Yeshiva University, or ought not be discussed at all.

Some criticized the style, claiming it was poorly written, that it was poorly written for an article about such a sensitive topic, or that the manner in which it was published – purportedly to provoke – was so flippant that the article was inappropriate.

My thoughts are on the differences between content and style.

I think that these topics can and ought to be discussed in a mature and nuanced manner. Pre-marital sex is relevant, it happens, and ignoring the issue will not stop it from occurring. While this is a Yeshiva, it is also a University, and this article was mild in comparison to what other universities publish. For example, Harvard College's "H BOMB" magazine is quite explicit in the content it publishes; its credo is: "H BOMB Magazine is Harvard College's premier arts and literary magazine dedicated to exploring issues related to gender, sex, and sexuality." Explore their website at your own risk: I quickly closed the Firefox tab out of discomfort. Similarly, Columbia University's "Spectator" last year ran an entire section entitled "Sex in the Lion's Den," which discussed, among other things, Columbia students' sexual encounters. By that standard, the infamous "Beacon" article was quite mild. If other universities publish material that many may call prurient, surely we can publish material that will discuss the same issues in an appropriate manner. Neither the Yeshiva nor the University ought to win; a middle ground can be achieved.

I am no expert on style and literary analysis, so I will resist giving a psak on the piece's stylistic merit. Yet considering some of the ‘spewage' that has emerged in all four (now three) of our illustrious official YU undergraduate news publications (has the "Quipster" gotten funding yet?) that has gone unnoticed in previous years, I am inclined to think that people's criticism of the article's style is fueled, in some way, by the content. This is legitimate: when you write a provocative article, you must be more nuanced with your language than when you write about the opening of a kosher 24-hour fast food establishment.

Yet these different criticisms – content versus style – will result with different policy decisions.

If one is perturbed by the content, then the article must be removed, and refusal to do so must result in breaking all association with the offenders.

If one is offended by the style, then the article's quality can be improved, and there are ways for the parties to work together.

I am not claiming that the executive decision to cut funding "Beacon" was made via this thought process, nor was I in the meeting that resulted in that choice, but this does seem to be a reasonable way to look at the controversy.

Yet amidst this content-style idea, there is another dichotomy: the difference between censoring and editing. Censoring is focused on content; editing is focused on style.

Last year's controversies focused on the ‘censorship committee.' After the ‘Gay Panel' of December 2009, the Yeshiva University administration decided that more oversight over student programming was needed. The Ethan Tucker event was cancelled, and a speech by Dr. Batsheva Marcus was retitled from "What Your Mother (And Father And School) Never Told You About Sex; Or Maybe They Did" to "Gender Roles, Body Images, and Societal Concepts of Sexuality." I was present at the Marcus presentation; it had nothing to do with gender roles or body images, and everything to do with what women are not told about sex.  An event I had proposed last year, a mock mock-checkpoint to galvanize student activism during Israel Apartheid Week, was denied out of fear of potential PR fallout.

The administration engages in both activities. They censored Tucker, and edited Marcus (rather poorly), and both of these decisions come from the ‘censorship committee.'

Yet we, the students, also censor – ourselves.

The "Beacon" was born out of a wave of self-censorship by the "Observer" last year, when the editor-in-chief refused to run several provocative articles. The founders decided that a forum for discussing these ideas was needed. Then, according to the "Wall Street Journal," the "Beacon's" funding was cut because of student outcry against the article.

I do not know why we choose to censor and not edit. Perhaps we learn from our administration the heavy hand of censorship and not the finesse of editing; maybe from them we learn an all-or-nothing choice of censorship, and that attempts at editing result in misrepresentation of that which is benign.

Perhaps we view censorship and editing as the same thing. In an atmosphere where our programming, sstuds and ystuds, curriculums, and opportunities are decided by a whimsical and opaque administration whose execution of its decisions is maladroit, we have adopted their mindset. Nuance is gone, from both the administration and the student body.

Some content the university will never let us run; I doubt the university would have ever let Tucker come to speak, no matter the compromises offered. Though I tried to work with the PR office to find a way to run my mock mock-checkpoint, they refused all my suggestions and told me to find a new way to achieve my educational goals. This is censorship of content and ought to be fought.

Yet how we present our arguments and ideas- for example, the style of our articles- can be improved. If we edit better, we can produce thoughts of a higher quality and caliber. And, though it may be difficult, compromises with the administration over controversial material can be found through the presentation of this material, and through editing.

Between the "Associate's" own gaffe and the current "Beacon" situation, there seems to be a verbalized abhorrence towards but an actual embrace of censorship, an inability to edit, and a false equivalence of these two choices.

Perhaps it is time we learned to edit.

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