Students currently enrolled in professor George Chauncey’s increasingly popular lecture on American gay and lesbian history were tasked this week with reading a series of diaries and memoirs. Among the assigned readings was James Baldwin’s unforgettable essay “Here Be Dragons,” which ran in Playboy in the mid-’80s. Leave it to Baldwin to challenge our conception of masculinity in the pages of what is easily the most recognizable symbol of heterosexual male desire. In the process of reflecting on American sexual culture, he drew attention to a reality all must confront. He wrote: “We all exist, after all, and crucially, in the eye of the beholder. We all react to and, to whatever extent, become what the eye sees.”
While Baldwin used the extreme loneliness that physically androgynous hermaphrodites face to introduce the above quote, one need not exhibit anatomical rarity to relate to the sentiment he conveyed. The eye exercises much more influence than choosing a physically suitable mate. Even more, one’s “eye” is not restricted to sight alone: We all make formulations based on action, speech and attitude.
We were all accepted to Yale because we represented a wide swath of interests, backgrounds and aspirations. But over our time here, we find ourselves converging in several areas — notably manners of dress, speech and career choice. It is impossible to pinpoint when this transformation manifests itself, but nevertheless homogeneity creeps in year after year until at some point the word “Yale” shifts from operating as a proper noun to an adjective.
In the University’s past, this convergence may not have been as noticeable due to the similar backgrounds of most Yale students. Years ago, if the tales are true, one could distinguish a Yale graduate by his merit and character.
After many changes to both this specific University and the nature of post-secondary American education as a whole, I think it is fair to say that one can no longer easily distinguish a Yale graduate in a crowd. Absent character building, we are left with accomplishments and tangible assets (read: wealth and financial stability) to define ourselves as Yalies.
Sartorial uniformity is lamentable enough, but much of what we absorb in Yale College cannot be removed at the end of the day. Many of us are trapped in the eye of the beholder, and, as Baldwin points out, we become what the eye sees. We look to one another, our classmates and upperclassmen and other Yale graduates, to help us define the very values and measures of success that will guide us through life. The problem is that we fail to recognize our own place in this system.
It’s difficult to admit that we often conform to the expectations of our peers, that they shape our outlook on the world. We often forget that we ourselves exercise tremendous influence over the lives of those very same people. Everyday, we verbally and non-verbally communicate to our classmates a series of preferences that categorize and rank the world around us. These communications yield the very commonalities in thought and action that we see — from things as trivial as music choice to issues regarding race or gender or rights or career.
Whether we find ourselves in the majority or minority on a certain issue, we should all recognize the responsibility we bear in shaping the Yale community. The attitudes of our peers are informed by what they see around them — the actions and ideas they encounter as well as those that they fail to see.
If Baldwin is correct and we do, to various degrees, become what the eye sees, perhaps we are all in need of a good, long look in the mirror. What attitudes or trends on this campus do you find disappointing? More importantly, what have you said or done to correct or reinforce those very trends?
Kyle Tramonte is a senior in Saybrook College. His columns run on Thursdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.