I am now over 2-1/2 years into my work as a “communications manager” at Yeshiva University, which has tutored me in the tensions between being a writer and a content provider.
Writing produced by writing and content produced by writing are similar but not the same thing. They both involve words, structure, grammar, syntax and so on, but the content I create fulfills the institution’s need to inform the world about itself multiple times in a day. (The content our team creates is not only longer-form pieces for the news and faculty blogs, which is what I do, but also social media postings for Facebook and Instagram that we push out several times a day).
This is not journalism, at least in any strict sense of that term. We do fact checks, we do run quotes by those quoted, we follow AP Style, and so on, but the record we create is by no means “the first draft of history” because we are not free to write what we witness but must record it for the “higher” purpose of maintaining the University’s, and the University President’s, curated iconography.
There is nothing wrong with this, of course – we’re hired as chroniclers and marketers, not investigators and critiquers, and our paychecks come to us because we successfully fashion an image of an educational institution that is at the same time modern and traditional, moving forward because it stands firm – that sort of campaign-speak.
My fellow writers and I are not always comfortable with this, of course – even if we know that our jobs are about the feel-good and the uncontroversial, it grinds on us to reshape something we’ve taken the time to write because a donor found it not to his or her liking or the president, who wants to style himself as a thought leader, isn’t quite ready to actually step out and lead with a thought that would bring attention to himself.
A recent example of the former concerned the visit of Dr. Elaine Pagels, of Gnostic gospel fame, to deliver a lecture as part of the Seminar on Ancient Judaism. I covered the lecture, and my naÃ¯ve soul thought that it was a feather in the University’s cap to have the renowned scholar on campus and engaging in intellectual discourse on Christian and Jewish scholarship with Jewish scholars recognized for their own work in the field.
But someone complained about something (even though I’ve asked to see the complaint, it’s never been passed along to me), and I had to take the story down until someone in the President’s office wrote up a vanilla account of “Dr. Pagels was here, she talked about the Gospel of Thomas, and we had a Q&A.” Nothing about the substance of the lecture or the friendly intellectual sparring in the Q&A segment. And I had to take out what I wrote and install the sanitized wording.
What irritated me about this was not about my writing being overruled but the devaluing of something that an institution of higher learning should treasure because one person saw reason to take exception to having a Christian scholar on a Jewish campus. Where is the spine? Where is the spirited defense of intellectual investigation from the President (which would be a pretty good thought for a thought leader to have)? So, the official record now is just a diary entry, opaque and forgettable.
An example of the latter involves some recent angst over the status of sexual minorities at the University. A student club managed to get permission to hold an event to discuss LGBTQ issues on campus and, more generally, in the Orthodox Jewish world while, just a few days before, the Office of Admissions, which manages the model United Nations conference organized by the University for high school students around the country, refused to allow the student organizers to introduce a paper on the treatment of sexual minorities in certain countries as a topic for discussion, citing a sensitivity to how the subject might trigger negative reactions in the high school students attending.
Again, no guidance from the administration about how to approach these issues, just silence until, hopefully, the subject fades away.
This timidity vexes me, but I cannot be surprised by it. Those in control have decided that the “content” that tells the story of the University will be uplifting without lifting anything off its foundation, will partake of the modern world while inoculating itself against the modern world, will pretend to be a university while maintaining the insular spirit of a yeshiva.
Again, no surprise in this because what the University does to shape its image is what we all do with our own self-imaging efforts. The story of the University is the story it chooses to tell: there’s no “true” story or “false” story, there’s just the story that serves the creation of a desired identity.
Humans do the same thing. The creature known as Sapiens does not have a “self,” a central controlling portion of the brain that can be pointed to as the “I,” but is just a collection of biological algorithms for processing information, overlaid by a set of self-told narratives that only lightly map onto “reality” (whatever that is) but confect coherence and stability for the creature stumbling through life.
The more I look at people, the more I read books like Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari (author of Sapiens) or Skin in the Game by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (author of The Black Swan) or The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis, the more it seems that humans are just amnambulatory mess of false suppositions about what they are and how they function. They prefer to hold on to disproven notions of a self, of an I, of free will, of a special spiritual purpose as they craft false or misleading narratives about themselves. Most of the time this makeshift “works,” in that people can get out of bed in the morning and make it through the day without going mad. But these narratives are themselves a kind of madness, feints and dodges that put off reckonings (and, given the state of the earth’s climate that sustains us all, those reckonings may not be put-offable for much longer).
Does any of this matter? I don’t know. What does “matter” even mean here? If there are no special ends that guide the existence of Sapiens, then what people do is what people do. We can make our judgments, voice our angers, work to make right what is wrong, but they’re just sounds we make as we make our way along. Appeals to higher authorities, to natural laws, to self-evident truths – all just-so stories we tell ourselves to keep ourselves calm and forward-moving while the actual inner workings of the corporeal body grind away without any purpose other than maintaining the system in optimal balance.
I saw this without ornamentation when my mother and mother-in-law passed away recently. When the body is shorn of everything except its autonomic functions, the regulatory mechanisms whirr along without anything like commands or suggestions from an “I” – the algorithms process, and that is the alpha and omega of it. All the cloud structures built on top of the autonomic resolve into the vapor of which they’re made, and the only thing left is the carnal running down its clock.
Can a life be lived using these thoughts, a life unpremised and denarratived, a life lived knowing that it’s all made up but still needing to make it through the day? Not at the university-level, to be sure: it needs, and will have, its content. But at the level of the content-maker? That seems to be what the content-maker is struggling with these days.