To Mary, who encouraged me to share more personally.
The problem with arguing rationally about issues of identity is that one risks missing the forest for the trees. In a formal sense, a position should stand exclusively on the merit of its arguments. But often the central reason for arguing is personal and irrational. In my essays on Deafhood, I’ve tried to shine light on different sides of the same pride, in hopes of showing a Deafhood fundamentally self-standing, yet affected, often adversely, by a hearing world. It occurs to me that in the context of an issue that affects the culture and identity of a people, it may be crucial to tell you that behind an attempt at objectivity, I have personal, emotional commitments to what I am arguing.
I want to take a moment to reiterate what stands even if we don’t see eye to eye on differences in hearing status. In “Deafhood unheard” I mentioned that in moments of frustration the Deaf are more likely to fault social differences (language barriers to public services) than anatomical ones (“fixing” their lack of hearing). But even there, the inherently emotional argument was nearly invisible. I’ve found a clearer way to point at the heart without appealing to logic. What I want to share is abstract and almost uninterpretable. Let me tell you about a dream I had last night.
I dreamed I was inducted into a serving class in a militant society, as if I were a recruit again in boot camp. Some who had been there longer and were experienced were helping me learn the procedures. Still too inexperienced to explicitly lead, I quickly found that the best way I could give to the community was through outspoken positive morale. We were a small group from a range of backgrounds, trying to establish unity in routines, and identify our role as a serving class. We shuffled uncertainly in a food line waiting our turn, and waiting to have a better understanding of how oppressive our lives would be.
Some were my age, but many were young kids: 3, 7, 10 years old. I held the youngest and encouraged the others to move forward. Then a little girl, maybe 7 or 10, was signing and speaking to me. In both languages she asked, “Do you think we’ll be able to get enough food?” Suddenly, I discovered a remarkable clarity in my purpose. I identified deeply with her, I loved her, and I would protect her. In the face of the dull, confusing scene, a previously vague sense of purpose, I suddenly found a bedrock for my identity. She was a CODA (child of deaf adults). She was just like me, and that was worth protecting.
Because she could sign and talk, she was more like me than anyone I knew there. She was more important to me than any of the leaders, other servants or children, or any collective cause for survival. She was one of my people. She had deaf parents and grew up with the pain of seeing them judged, be treated unfairly, and regularly ignored. She knew the quirks and pleasure of a manual-visual language. She had dealt with a world that noticed her by her “cool” differences. I wanted to help her through that world.
As an adult, she would get used to explaining over and over again what it’s like having deaf parents, confirming the bias that it must indeed be different, even if neat. She might see the subtle and not subtle effects of a society that never learned her parents’ language, and didn’t give them enough opportunity to learn it themselves. And the occasional astounding reality of the hearing deciding for the deaf what’s best, without discussion.
I’m trying to contribute to such a discussion, but a lifetime of this hasn’t made for a promising outlook. For example, 95% of the world lives largely unaffected by hearing status and is perhaps unaware of its effect on the other 5%. Audism doesn’t get noticed (or appear in spell-checkers) or offend anyone outside its victims, let alone inspire apology or self-reflection. The experience of many emotionally affects the experience of the few. As a bystander, it emotionally affects me.
I identify with a group, the Deaf, that is often offended by most of you. This is not an argument or an attack, it’s an observation about lives (including mine). Before you discount it as emotional or angry, see that it’s lived. I challenge you to interface your rational, logical opinion on the topic with the lives your opinion affects.
Now, let’s get back to talking about it rationally.
For the more rational essays
- A World without Music
- Talk about Deafhood
- The Definition of Deaf
- Dealing with Deaf at the party
- Deafhood Unheard
- Language with a Bionic Ear
- Treating Hearing Status
———————————————————–GENERAL COMMENT: I’ve received a number of comments about the dream sequence, and it’s encouraged me to elaborate on an understated point.
The dream sequence, as many can relate to, provides a dramatic mirror of the thing (I didn’t realize) I valued. Dreams generally do this. I stated in the essay that I used a dream to emphasize the ‘irrational’ or emotional kind of evidence, and this is true. But there’s also another important element I intended for the dream to illuminate. That is, that despite being such an important element of my life, I only became explicitly aware of it through the fictional world of a dream. For most of us, we can find examples in real life where there is a strong sense of identity and in-group connection. Being a psychologist, a grad student, a veteran, I have plenty of regular concrete experiences that affirm these aspects of my identity. But being a CODA is more rare. It took a dream for me to explicitly NOTICE the identity value. The number of 10 year old children of deaf adults that I know, is zero.
We all have parts of our identity that few can relate to, that maybe are best seen in dreams, or personal writing, or just thoughts. But these rarer identities are no less vital. I don’t know of a general way to be sympathetic to this point. It’s related to the concrete question of, “If I didn’t know I was being offensive, what should I have done differently?” The only thing I can say is something vague, which is that, it is really important to invite people you’re talking to to feel comfortable to share whatever they feel is relevant.