Friday, June 30, 2006

Hyman Turns a Deaf Ear

As he tends to do, in his latest editorial, Mark Hyman charges into a debate he apparently knows nothing about and reduces an intellectually and socially complex and fascinating issue into boorish talking points.

This time, Hyman sneers at student protests at Gallaudet University, the only college founded specifically to serve the deaf. He wonders if perhaps the student’s are not just engaging in recreational protesting.

The protests revolve, at least in part, around
the hiring of a new college president who, while deaf, also supports the use of cochlear implants and efforts of deaf individuals to speak in addition to using sign language. The protestors themselves say that a large part of the issue isn’t the new president’s specific stands on these issues, but rather problems with the selection process, which they say was not open enough.

Hyman ignores this, though, and centers his commentary on the claim that the protestors are upset with Fernandes’s desire to “mainstream” deaf students (although he also adds, without a shred of backing, that “Perhaps a contributing reason for opposition is Fernandes' reputation for disciplining incompetent faculty and cheating students.”

After throwing that random and baseless assertion into the mix, Hyman builds to his conclusion:

It's disappointing that Fernandes' practical view of life outside
of the cocoon of Gallaudet is not acceptable to some students. They may be
relying on their disabilities instead of overcoming them.

What condescending tripe.

As is often the case, the problem here is more with the way Hyman makes his argument rather than specific position he seems to advocate (mainstreaming). Reasonable people can and do disagree about the relative merits of mainstreaming in the cases of many different disabilities. But Hyman doesn’t offer a thoughtful argument in favor of mainstreaming. Instead, he attacks the motivations of those on the other side of the argument. According to him, they are “relying on their disabilities” and calls their displays of concern a “pastime.”

If Hyman cared about the specific issue at hand, he would have quickly found out that the arguments about the pros and cons of “
Deaf culture” have been going on for years. While some say that the goal should be to make deaf individuals as much like their hearing peers as possible, others argue that the large population of Deaf individuals have created a culture of their own that should be respected as having an inherent worth of its own.

This is a particularly sticky issue when it comes to cochlear implants, which work best when implanted in deaf children at a very young age, before they can actively participate in the decision. Proponents of Deaf culture say this is unfair, and can even be likened to a sort of cultural genocide. Ultimately, the issue comes down to answering the question
“What does it mean to be deaf?”

I’m hardly an expert on the issue, but I’ve had a couple of students who have been involved in speech and hearing pathology, and the subject has come up enough that I’ve come to appreciate the depth and importance of the debate. As I said above, I can see intelligent, thoughtful, and powerful arguments for both sides.

That Hyman seems to side with the position that mainstreaming deaf individuals is the best policy in the long run isn’t my main concern. (If you put a gun to my head and forced me to choose sides, I’d probably end up on that side of the fence myself, although I also don’t really think it’s any of my business.)

The problem is the intellectually impoverished argument he makes to support his conclusion. Rather than acknowledging the real concerns on both sides, he belittles those with whom he disagrees, suggesting that their arguments are not even worth considering because they aren’t made sincerely. From talking with my students about the issue, the one thing I *do* know about this issue is that both sides have passionate, sincere arguments to make.

As I pointed out in my previous post, this has become the default rhetorical move for contemporary conservatives when dealing with arguments on the other side: unable or unwilling to defend their position on its merits, they attack the character or motivations of anyone who holds a view different from their own.

And while this might seem like a highly specific issue, it speaks to issues that go beyond Gallaudet University or the Deaf community. It goes to the larger worldview of conservatism that suggests people either sink or swim, and that to offer help or make allowances, however trivial and easy they might be to do, is to undermine the “Strict Father” morality that George Lakoff notes is at the center of the conservative ethos.

From the conservative perspective, it’s not just the deaf who should be mainstreamed, but everybody. Special efforts to help are anathema (unless, of course, you are already successful, in which case you *should* get special benefits, since you have proven your worth). The result is a worldview that is against doing anything specific to address problems of poverty, racial discrimination, gender bias, homophobia, unequal educational opportunities. Any attempt to do so is, ironically enough, termed a obstacle of the individual “overcoming” the obstacle.

I’m not sure, but I’d guess that one reason proponents of Deaf culture find the advocacy of cochlear implants and teaching of verbal speech as opposed to sign language so threatening is that, within the culture, deafness doesn’t exist as a problem. It’s been “solved.” True, it doesn’t do away with the issues they face beyond that culture, but it is a way of freeing them, at least partially, of the “obstacle” of deafness.

Regardless of the merits of Deaf culture, it strikes me that the proper attitude to have toward some of the other “obstacles” mentioned above is to actually make the problems cease to exist. The difference is that with issues of poverty and discrimination, we *can* go a long ways in doing away with these problems.

Conservatives say individuals should work to overcome obstacles. Liberals say we should work together to eliminate the obstacles once and for all.

And that’s The Counterpoint.

Hyman Index: 3.18


At 10:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


There is a video (I'm not sure if the correct word is "documentary") titled "The Sound and the Fury" that illustrates some of the issues that Hyman chose to lecture on. It present the "Deaf Culture" argument in a somewhat sympathetic view. What I found interesting (I know some folks involved in this issue) is watching this video with an American Sign Language interpreter. Some "nuances" that are not translated into subtitles are interesting. Just thought I'd pass that along to you or your students who might be interested.

To tip my hand on this issue, would one deprive a child of eyeglasses (or a hearing aid) on the basis of a consent issue?


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