I arrived at Yale the same day I buried my grandmother. In three hours, I replaced a barren cemetery with a Baroque Woolsey Hall.
My grandmother’s influence is one of the reasons I am here today. In December of my senior year of high school, she was well enough for me to tell her I had been accepted to Yale. It was so important to me that she knew, and it meant a lot to her as well. For my grandmother and me, Yale represented validation. But as my grandmother’s mind began to slip away, her nurses thought she was delusional when she said her grandson was going to Yale.
During the drive from New Jersey to New Haven, I thought about how unstable Yale the symbol was, and so I let it slip out of my mind and the car window.
This academic year, Yale, the collective body, is wrangling over the meaning of Yale, the symbol. Watching the process, I can’t help but wonder: Are we merely tilting at shadows of windmills, the windmills themselves far off, the forces that turn them wholly forgotten?
Many of our arguments miss true empathy. We call it free speech or protest, Schwarzman or Commons, Calhoun or Thompson, SAE the frat or SAE the party: Our fights are over symbolic significance. It is not just us arguing over representation, either: This is a national phenomenon. Trump is busy giving Fear a face in an entertaining ballet of demagogic apotheosis. There is frustration within our University community and within the national community, and it is being directed towards symbols. We are waging wars over images because we feel they affect real people. I’d like to suggest we can resolve the former with deeper attention to the latter.
Noticing this tension over symbolism in our campus dialectic, I began seeking contrasting perspectives. By chance, I consistently found myself at events in which I was an obvious outlier. It is difficult to explain this otherness without feeling it. It is not a result of the actions of others; it is simply a facet of being there and being different. Walking in another’s shoes without really wearing them reminds you how cold the ground can be.
Yet in listening to the views of the people at each homogeneous event, I was astonished by how easy it was for me, an outsider, to understand what was said. Each perspective had legitimate concerns, but each group felt that the rest of the community could not hear them. A girl I met at the Asian American Cultural Center summed this paradox up perfectly: “We have so many great events like this, but nobody who would really benefit would ever come.”
Yale meant something different for each group, and each understanding seemed, in context, correct. Yale was: a liberal machine for conservative happenings; a space with a sordid past and a flawed present for progressive events; and an unequal but potentially empowering place for all the events that fell somewhere on this spectrum.
But realize this: The above language we regularly employ is what prevents us from solving problems of representation. Each of the speakers at these events delivered what they believed to be universal messages; however, Yale the symbol did not loom over their talks. Among those that were similar, the speakers dug into what they had learned from experience. When students and faculty members in the audience voiced concerns and asked for help, they didn’t blame a symbolic establishment; they brought to light patterns of experience.
This kind of pointed discourse is hard to foster among a more diverse audience of debate. Once we get into less homogenous spaces, we don’t feel comfortable making this assumption about our audience; we retreat to symbol-squabbles when the problem lies deeper. Even if we were able to remove all the offensive symbols from this University and from this country, confining them to the closet of memory, they would only truly stop mattering when their meaning stopped stinging. If we want to really get rid of these symbols, it can only happen with empathetic dialogue that addresses why they still represent something relevant to people today.
After the passing of my grandmother, I thought Yale the symbol was empty in her absence. I judged symbols impotent against the severe, august specter of Time. But after hearing voices at Yale sustain narratives often overlooked, I have since rethought how symbols work. Our capacity to listen, care and reply allows us to shape coherent stories out of a chaotic universe. When I think about who my grandmother was, and what it is she lived for, I see the thread of her influence in every word I write, in every labor I tax myself to perfect. My time at Yale is a symbol, for me, of her.
Yes: When empathy wins, we regain control over our symbols. But right now, in our University and this country, empathy is dying. And we are killing it.
Luke Ciancarelli is a freshman in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .