Artists will tell you that perspective is everything. Photographers wait hours for just the right lighting or they take hundreds of pictures to get just the right expression on a model’s face. They also carry several lenses in order to have just the right one for the current circumstances when taking a special photograph. When it comes to the important issues in life, perspective also is everything.
A residential liberal arts college campus, where I spent 10 years of my career, is a wonderful place for sharpening perspective. In addition to all the life and energy that the students exude, many of the faculty and staff thoroughly enjoy their work. Just watching the students arrive on campus each fall, full of hope and enthusiasm, gives them psychic income — that nonmonetary compensation that, though it doesn’t pay for the kids’ braces, gives intangible gratification.
One element that particularly fascinates is the cycle of change and maturation in one class of freshmen after another. The transformation in their lives that occurs within three or four years is amazing. Most students arrive as gangly teens, some strutting boldly to conceal their uncertainty; others still shy and giggly. Soon, they make friends and are more at ease, more confident of their ability to handle a broader world than home and family.
A young guy with awfully rough edges showed up in my class one fall. It didn’t take long to discover that under that unpolished exterior was extraordinary potential. He was willing to learn and wanted to excel. And he did. His level of sophistication grew to the point that it was no surprise when he was elected student body president in the spring of his junior year.
One strikingly beautiful young lady caused quite a stir her freshman year, but despite all the heads she turned, she wasn’t interested. She was an exceptionally bright, focused, serious student. But in her junior year, a transfer student with a sunny smile showed up and turned out to have the key to her heart. They graduated as Mr. and Mrs.
Watching the students interact was an endless source of fascination, especially seeing two young people discover each other and form a lifelong bond. There is intensity to the way they begin to focus on each other; smiles and flashing eyes reveal a budding exhilaration. In time it will become a burning intensity that excludes the world around them: consuming feelings that are most suited to a private space. But in the beginning, before the flame reaches white hot, it is an intriguing, even stunning, process to observe.
But not everyone views that process through a clear lens. NPR’s Robert Siegel — in an article titled “Sayyid Outb’s America: Al Qaeda Inspiration Denounced U.S. Greed, Sexuality” — reports on the experiences of this Egyptian writer and educator who is credited with laying the groundwork for the radical Islamic movement.
Outb spent part of 1949 in Greeley, Colo., studying curriculum at Colorado State Teachers College. Outb viewed many of the scenes that I saw on another college campus, but he saw it this way: "The American girl is well acquainted with her body’s seductive capacity. She knows it lies in the face, and in expressive eyes, and thirsty lips. She knows seductiveness lies in the round breasts, the full buttocks, and in the shapely thighs, sleek legs — and she shows all this and does not hide it."
Clearly, Outb understands nothing about teenage girls, nothing about their uncertainties, nothing about their insecurities regarding their looks — a pimple can be a crisis. Outb’s perverted sex-drenched views are the product of his overheated and twisted imagination. Even these conjectures do not help me understand how anyone could view a young girl’s “expressive eyes” in such an evil light.
The Scriptures tell us that “to the pure, all things are pure.” Outb’s outlook makes me believe that the converse is also true, that “to the evil heart, all things appear evil.”
Siegel notes that even in conservative Greeley, Colo. — a full decade before the sexual liberation of the 1960s — Outb saw at an innocent dance in a church basement what he considered to be proof of animalistic American sexuality: "They danced to the tunes of the gramophone, and the dance floor was replete with tapping feet, enticing legs, arms wrapped around waists, lips pressed to lips, and chests pressed to chests. The atmosphere was full of desire."
Small wonder that this patron saint of the radical Islamist movement — with his sensual, negative views of the fairer sex — should think all women need to be hidden in shapeless black robes with their faces covered. Why such a distorted lens? Outb didn’t stumble into a crowd of Britney Spears wannabes in that Greeley church basement in 1949. Why should something as intriguing as “courtship” (to use an old-fashioned word that would certainly have applied to the late 1940s) be offensive to his eye?
I would hazard a guess that at least two factors affected Outb’s outlook: a vitriolic disdain for what is unfamiliar and his own lustful view of life. Perhaps his own sexual insecurities both exacerbated these factors, making him unable to admire what he didn’t understand and couldn’t control.
Whatever the source of Outb’s pathetic bile, one can only imagine his horror should he gaze on the Venus de Milo or chance to glimpse the works of Rubens or countless other Western painters and sculptors who gloried in the female form.
Outb’s outlook, however, is but one distorted view. Many American women in the latter half of the 20th century have, for a variety of reasons, embraced an equally unnatural position regarding men and women’s sexual relationships.
For example, Andrea Dworkin wrote, "The traditional flowers of courtship are the traditional flowers of the grave, delivered to the victim before the kill. The cadaver is dressed up and made up and laid down and ritually violated and consecrated to an eternity of being used."
Doubtless, many tragic events poisoned her perspective: At the age of 9 she was molested in a movie theater, she became a radical anti-war activist in her college days and married an anarchist who soon began to abuse her violently, and resorted to prostitution while on the run from him. Clearly, her life experiences gave her a horribly warped view of what was normal — views that she worked assiduously to foist off on the rest of American women. The origins of the radical feminist views of legal scholar Catherine MacKinnon (professor of law at the University of Michigan Law School and the University of Chicago) are not so clearly evident, but her outlook is equally as perverse as Dworkin’s, with whom she collaborated. We are left to wonder what traumas led MacKinnon to her horrendous conclusion: “All sex, even consensual sex between a married couple, is an act of violence perpetrated against a woman.”
MacKinnon’s jaded view sees as pathetic those millions of females who desire intimate physical love with the man they cherish and with whom they wish to have a child; MacKinnon “sees through” that “fiction” — she figured out that men have duped women into thinking this is what they want. If these other women only saw things clearly, as MacKinnon does, they would reject the fraudulent view of life that men have foisted on them by force and intimidation.
MacKinnon and Dworkin’s warped perspective results in the theory that privacy and family are merely tools of male domination; the real reason for the defense of privacy is because it enables men to “conceal their criminality.” Views such as these have been propagated relentlessly by women’s studies programs at universities all across the country. These perspectives have been the driving force behind many social policy initiatives, such as changes in divorce law and its administration in the courts, and the expansion of the American welfare state during the second half of the 20th century as an alternative to traditional marriage.
Thankfully, the heyday of radical feminism appears to have passed. But many flawed policies remain to be put aright by the legislatures and courts. One bellwether of the return to normalcy is that having babies is clearly back in style. The evidence is splashed all over the covers of the tabloids. The publicists of the beautiful people are obviously busy pushing photos of celebrity newborns: the first of Angelina and Brad’s child are reputed to have brought millions that were donated to charity. This new “old” trend is certainly a relief from the days when couples who had children were being derided scornfully as “breeders.”
We often hear it said, “What you see is what you get.” Well, not always. Frequently, what you see is what your prejudices make you see.