Rendezvous with Reality: A Response to the Beacon Controversy

“Congrats on being a YU paper that doesn’t publish porn,” read the 3-AM message in my inbox, not 24 hours since the Beacon published “How Do I Even Begin to Explain This.” Still stunned by this and many other reactions to the emergent controversy, I hope to address and correct many misconceptions about recent events. There’s a lot to absorb here regarding YU’s goals as an institution and our own goals as its students.

I find it clear that the article, while a tad salacious, contains no obscene content. Pornography, I understand, is usually more explicit than banal euphemism and a walk home. The piece’s pointlessness strikes the reader far more than any sexual content, and the uproar created by the Beacon staff reflects grave narrow-mindedness.

The article received incredible publicity in its first few days, certainly something for YU to follow closely. The anonymous love story boasts more than 1500% more hits than yubeacon.com’s second-most popular article (which happens to be a graphic, corporeal account of a serial killing. No sex, though). But this is still just a few thousand hits, many of them, no doubt, editorial page-reloads, and just about all of them YU students who by reading the story learned nothing new about their college community. [Note: Since being referenced in numerous national media outlets (a result of its being taken down) the article has received exponentially more hits, and its popularity has spread to many other communities.] Not the best thing to have lying around the web, from the perspective of a hypothetical Censorship Committee, but in the long run probably innocuous. And that’s exactly why the decision to censor was probably a major error.

On numerous levels, it is completely understandable why many people in YU would not want to be associated with the article. But perhaps we should have foreseen the hullabaloo that emerged from “censoring free speech.” By being censored, the article earned hundreds of times more publicity than it would have received otherwise—paradoxically and predictably.

Now that YU inhibits its students’ free speech (however over-dramatic and under-informed the proclamation), the Beacon story titillates a much broader community. The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency are but a few of the publications to which the young Stern woman’s motzei Shabbos (Saturday night) just became interesting. Here at YU, we might all get that we’re so much more than a university—a movement, a way of life, a yeshiva—but we’re also a regular New York City college held to regular American standards. Seemingly medieval practices of censorship will be viewed as exactly that, no matter how lofty is the religious principle constructed in defense.

For this reason, YU has taken quite a bit of flak for not just leaving the article alone no matter how uncomfortable it made them.

But wait. This wasn’t censorship—at all. The administration did not take the article down, or demand that it be taken down. As more and more informed reports emerged, we learned that the Stern College for Women Student Council (SCWSC), responding to clearly demonstrated student opinion, asked the Beacon editorship to remove the article. By and large, the student body that the Beacon seeks to represent felt that the Beacon actually misrepresented them and so wanted the story gone. Therefore, it probably would have been unreasonable to think that any national coverage would result from the meeting, as removing the story was only acceding to the requests of the online paper’s constituents.

This is not censorship. This is not a big deal.

That’s not to say the Beacon editors should not have been aggravated. The editors of the Beacon deemed “How Do I Even Begin to Explain This” publishable, and no editor wants his or her discretion questioned. And certainly, there are many students who supported the piece and wanted it kept online. On some nominal level, I’m sure, the Beacon editors felt that this piece contributed something important to the lives of their readership. But student leaders are elected to act on behalf of their student body, and it was with the support of most of their constituents that SCWSC confronted the Beacon.

My respect for the Beacon staff’s collective talent is immense, and, as a student journalist, despite my fundamentally different aims, I respect their publication. But that one Beacon editor tipped off Fox News and another mentioned the story to New Voices is downright disturbing. The apparent disregard for our own community’s reputation is unsettling. Even if neither intended to defame the university by doing this, the repercussions were obvious and easily foretold. Our name has since been slashed and smeared by prominent national voices (even though most articles have been misinformed). What’s unclear is what the Beacon hoped to gain from publicizing this—presumably, national coverage would only intensify widespread student sentiment against the article and its publishers. (It did.)

Additionally, the Beacon’s assertion to numerous news outlets that it is the only co-ed Yeshiva newspaper is patently false and self-serving. The Commie was co-ed before the Beacon existed.

The reports by New Voices and Fox News, among those of many other publications, recorded fancy as fact, and demonstrated poor research and speculative journalism. I can only hope that their reports of censorship on behalf of the YU administration were not fed to them by YU students, for this would represent a defamatory distortion of fact. It would also be treasonous.

These publications, among others, herald sensationalist headlines, such as, “YU Paper in Danger After Acknowledging Existence of Sex,” and “Laughably Mild Sex Story Torments the Very Soul of Yeshiva University.” Many of these articles are crass and occasionally somewhat funny, but almost all of them miss the point. As former Observer Editor-in-Chief Olivia Friedman notes in recent blog posts, YU student publications have frequently discussed sex—among Jews, even unmarried ones—explicitly.[1] Far more explicitly than the “fumbling, the pain, the pleasure” of affected Beacon fame. But Friedman and others dealt with these topics deftly and sensitively. Their writing stimulated discussion that was reasoned and productive.

The Beacon piece, on the other hand, is so unimaginatively written that its very publication seems flippant, and promotes no such conversation. As Friedman says,[2]

If you are going to make the editorial decision to inflame most of the student body—who choose to attend this university because of the fact that it’s Yeshiva University and there are theoretically certain standards that accompany that name—then you better make sure it’s worth it. Was this really worth it? Was this one essay about a girl sleeping with a guy and then feeling bad about it so important? Did it really help anyone who was in this position? And if so, what exactly did it help them with? What was the message behind this story?

YU students eagerly engage with issues that outsiders might assume we consider taboo. But most of us understand that engaging with an issue doesn’t mean just mentioning or shouting the relevant terms. We all know thoughtful reflection when we see it.

If the Beacon article purports to grapple with big issues, we must conclude that it falls desperately short. The title indicates that Anonymous seeks “to explain” something, that she is struggling with a conflict so great that her powers of expression are handicapped. Yet the author’s emotional tension earns just a quasi-profound clause or two, probably intended to give the piece a self-reflective stamp. With two nondescript references to her “pest of a conscience” and one to the “walk of shame” (a YU cliché), the article lacks depth by any legitimate standards.

While we’ve all read seemingly immature and vacuous journalism before, we haven’t read it about sex in the Orthodox community. If you’re going to try to take on a heated, personal, and sensitive topic, such emptiness won’t fly.

The Beacon controversy is no Ethan Tucker-gate or Gay Panel. Those are instances of YU’s censoring events that could have or did (respectively) stimulate important, mature dialogue about some of the Jewish world’s central tensions. Anonymous’s article, on the contrary, contributes nothing to any valuable conversation, neither about sex, YU, nor Modern Orthodox social life (and it was not censored by the administration!).

So, does that really make it terrible? Not every piece of student literary output is worth bragging about; indeed, there are a number of student productions that many of us would prefer for no one, YU student or judgmental outsider, to see. That doesn’t mean they should be deleted.

Sometimes, the student voice is disconcerting. No getting around that.

But “How Do I Even Begin to Explain This” was worse than literarily meritless. Aside from being filled with sentences so prosaic that many are confident that the author made up the account—“definitely a dude,” many believe—the piece broached a topic that has a right way and wrong way to be dealt with. A work of comparable quality about something more mundane would have disappointed readers, but would not have been taken down. For the hot topics necessarily come with a heightened need to write, discuss, and grapple with the subjects intelligently. The audience is more sensitive and the stakes are higher. You must be careful.

“How Do I Even Begin to Explain This” wasn’t careful. The narrative could have been thought-provoking, but it wasn’t. It fell flat. Students were embarrassed by it. Granted, we can’t expect a double coincidence of wants: the rare young Stern woman who is having sex and eager to talk about it, odds are, won’t also dazzle us with razor-sharp literary nuance. But the piece could still have been made publishable through editorial work and communication.

In the event that the story is a true account, I hope that its publication brought the author comfort. But this brouhaha charges the Beacon to refine its editorial standards and discretion.

Beacon editors, highlighting pieces of positive feedback they have received, claim that the article, for many, stimulated solid discussion. I have no doubts about this. Just about anything will speak to somebody. But the number of positive responses does not negate the overwhelming number of negative ones. With more work, “How Do I Even Begin to Explain This” could have stimulated positive discussion amongst much more people, without as much negative feedback and desecration of our reputation.

The saddest part of all this is that the piece had enormous potential. Were the Beacon staff to work with its writers (if via anonymous email) to flesh out and refine their writing, then “How Do I Even Begin to Explain This” could have yielded the conversation, empathy, and understanding that Anonymous probably sought. Anonymous should only be praised for her brave submission. But the Beacon is to be blamed for publishing it as is.

That doesn’t mean that the piece had to be taken down. Certainly, no matter how much people detested it, the piece could have stayed online (it is back up), and those who dislike it could have tried to forget about it; the internet has lots of stuff we don’t like. But enough students were bothered by it to justify its removal.

The Beacon should have anticipated the deeply negative reactions to the article. A newspaper continuously sparring with aspersions of “controversy for the sake of controversy” cannot just publish anything and everything. And leaking the uncontroversial story to national media organizations should offend the sensibilities of responsible Yeshiva students. Nobody can reasonably blame Anonymous or the YU administration, but Yeshiva students have made it clear that the Beacon needs to clean up its act.

To be sure, YU struggles with issues of censorship, and we need to push for the conversations that universities are supposed to foster. But taking down “How Do I Even Begin to Explain This” is not censoring free speech. It’s something much more comprehensible: censoring bad speech.

As I close in on 2,000 words, I’m going to pull a Beacon and tack on some ending lines that might misrepresent my entire work:

This is not a big deal (okay, this did come up earlier). Even if enough people were bothered by “How Do I Even Begin to Explain This” to legitimize its removal, the article was fairly harmless. Also fairly harmless is a Student Council request to remove one article from an online newspaper it funds. Considering the fundamental insignificance of most of this past week’s events, no one can justify the uproar.

Benjamin Abramowitz is a Yeshiva College super-senior majoring in English and neuroscience. He is Editor-in-Chief of The Commentator.

Thanks to Nathaniel Jaret for his constructive criticism.