The Opium of the deaf community?

The other day I came across a clever title of a book by Raymond Aron: The Opium of the Intellectuals. It was a polemic directed at Marxism, and argued that it was the opiate of intellectuals. The reason it’s clever is because Karl Marx originally claimed that religion was the opiate of the masses.

I began to think in contemporary terms: what would pass as the opium of our times, as much religion did in mid-19th century, and Marxism for intellectuals in the 1930s & 40s? Ten years ago, my cousin Igor credited television as the ultimate drug of our consumer society. No doubt the Internet may have replaced it today.

Now, considering the subculture the deaf community, what would be our opiate – a drug that fails to fix our ailments but allows us to forget our sufferings?

My sister and I prompted our friends to come up with answers and here’s what we gathered over two days:

Apathy, ADA, bellowing…, culture of low expectation (settle for less), Crab Theory, CI, English, gossip, hearing (jokingly), ideal homogeneity, illiteracy, Oralism, signing, sign language, SSI, texting, and venting vlogging

Apathy, gossip, texting, touching: too broad and not exclusive to deaf community. More indicative of parent culture.

ADA: egalitarian and humanist law that helps rather than anesthetize by requiring equal access for the disabled. Not so much a crutch that numbs anyone to reality.

bellowing: specific aggressive behavior quite shocking in public but not widespread in the community. Some of us know when and where to fit in and act out otherwise.

Culture of low expectations: unique to minorities, and could be a safety net that actually chokes off nascent ambitions.

Crab Theory: unique to minorities, and could be a self-imposed oppression due to years of internalizing pessimistic or low expectations.

Cochlear Implants: technological apparatus that allows the deaf some level of hearing, but not widespread & more of a privilege than a general crutch.

English (oralism): unique to DC; speaking & writing competency allows the deaf to easily navigate the larger hearing world, but is now considered an oppressive force.

Hearing: an ideal according to the medical view of deafness, and the norm for the hearing world. But this has lost its prestige in recent decades and cannot be a crutch for the DC.

Ideal homogeneity: some fascists subscribe to this view that all Deaf should have certain traits (deaf family, attend deaf institute of some kind, sign in ASL fluently, etc). But this is not exclusive to the DC and is not indicative of the varied community as a whole (only 10% of the population)

illiteracy: the widespread lack of reading is more about flawed education and the incompatibility between written English & the visual-spatial language of ASL.

signing, sign language: speaking in one’s own language is definitely comfortable, and could be a crutch at a times, but it by no means is a drug that hides the harsh reality of life. To have and use language is being human.

SSI: monthly government checks for the disabled. This is probably the biggest culprit that holds back the community from achieving a bigger role in society, for it is a crutch that allows the deaf to relax at home and watch tv. But this is the result, and not the cause, of a bigger problem that operates at a deeper level.

Vlogging: a popular trendy tool that allows a tiny percent of the community to get their opinions across the Internet. But since this severely underrepresents the community, it cannot be a good example of the opium.

After shooting most of these down a few contenders remain. Resentment, pessimism, and incompetence.

I chose illiteracy – not because deaf people in general can’t read, but the fact that their language is a visual one that precludes the use of a textual language and emphasizes the concrete experience over the conceptual. The deaf in general will not be concerned about reading anything – be it books or captioning or the names on the back of NFL players’ jerseys. The image is everything. Words? Mere indecipherable chicken-scratch. Movies, television and other forms of visual media are comfort food. Reading? Even comic books aren’t visual enough for our image-conscious community.

A great majority of the deaf are image oriented, and many are talented in the visual arts field. I myself grew up watching films, tv, and recreate my experience though art: drawing.

Books? I hardly read them unless I was stuck somewhere without a pen and far from a tv. But over time I grew to appreciate reading. Why wasn’t this easy from the get-go?

I realized it had to do with the way I experience life and that was through language. Although signing exact English (SEE) was my native language, it’s just coded speech. You don’t pick up the nuances of English that way. Hence reading & writing English was more of a struggle for me. Luckily I had a family that valued education and great teachers that never settled for less. Eventually I learned to enjoy reading and writing but not without difficulty. I imagine this is a common experience Among the deaf and without a support system most will never appreciate the printed word. There’s no textual version of sign language.

We are visual people and the text is alien to us. We prefer images and we communicate in images.

Thus illiteracy is the opium of the deaf community.

An opiate drug fails to fix the physical problem cuz it only relieves us from the pain & suffering. This is fine only if we aren’t interested in solving the underlying problem that causes the pain. Thus, being illiterate doesn’t fix the underlying causes of the deaf’s struggles – instead it actually help us forget why we are struggling and get us to look forward to a fictional future where there’s no requirement for reading anything at all.

Worse yet, this opiate is administered by the same people who are struggling in the first place. Illiteracy is an expression of a more fundamental pessimism (low expectations) and symptom of a deeper and oppressive reality. Hopefully, the deaf community will develop a society in which the conditions causing so much ignorance and suffering would be eradicated and thus the need for relaxing drugs like illiteracy will vanish. Are we heading that way? Yes – a pioneer by the name of Bob Arnold has developed a writing system called ASL writing that is exclusively based on hand shapes and movement and location. That is a sign of change to come.

Despite my dislike and disgust towards illiteracy it’s not the sole enemy of the deaf, regardless of what may have been done by the deaf. If illiteracy is a more serious enemy then I should have fought it deeper. But there are conditions and structures that oppresses the deaf, and they propagate illiteracy.

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...a philosophisticator who utters heresies, thinks theothanatologically and draws like Kirby on steroids.

5 thoughts on “The Opium of the deaf community?”

  1. “Religion is the opium of the people” is a well-known paraphrase of Karl Marx’s quote which originates in his little known early work of 1843, Critique to Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. To quote him more fully:

    Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness.

    Three key elements are associated with religion here: oppressed, drug (opium), happiness. Religion is a drug that provides happiness to oppressed people.

    Applying this analogy to the deaf community, as a cultural minority, deaf people are in various ways oppressed by the larger hearing majority. But is illiteracy deaf people’s analogous drug that provides them happiness? Illiteracy can hardly be a condition that makes deaf people happy. One parallel that illiteracy has with religion today, though, is that it’s something people can choose to keep or jettison with some effort.

    But illiteracy is not deaf specific. The U.S. is ranked 14th by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development for reading skills. And we live in a visually media oriented society today in comparison to a printed word oriented society of the 19th century. Illiteracy is true for the hearing as it is for the deaf. The hearing is not more literate than the deaf because of their spoken language. Everyone, hearing and deaf, has to learn how to read and write, regardless of one’s native language, spoken or sign.

    For what is deaf specific, I would have to say fatalism. While fatalism exists among the hearing, I’d have to say it’s more so for the deaf. Deafness is viewed by the larger hearing majority as a pathological condition that still has no cure. And speech has historically been the measurement of intelligence. These contribute to a culture of low expectation by the larger hearing majority that deaf people oftentimes feel too powerless to overcome.

    1. Great response. Perhaps I can re-word or present the argument in a different way. The same way religion keeps people happy and blind about their socioeconomic status, the deaf remain content and ignorant about their socioeconomic status because they are far more illiterate than most people. That explains why the university of Gallaudet requires only a 4th grade level of reading to get in – as opposed to most universities for the general population. I may have chosen an ambiguous concept in illiteracy, but it is specific to deaf culture – a special one based on language, yet lacks writing.

      Your alternative of fatalism is a very good one – although it might be mitigated by the general, prevailing optimism of our parent culture in America. I am sure this is far more manifest in other countries, especially in developing ones in which deafness is seen as a curse – a worse condition than a biological defect.

  2. Hey Rez' bro!

    you wrote: "English (oralism): unique to DC; speaking & writing competency allows the deaf to easily navigate the larger hearing world, but is now considered an oppressive force." – I dont know about California or even the US but in the deaf community, its always considered very useful to have some good written English. Spoken English, its useful yes but it isnt seen as something "must-have" – if you can speak, great, if you cant speak, oh thats ok, its no big deal – thats the attitude in Ireland but in England, deafies who can "speak on the phone" are considered as "wow, wow" – as if they are closer to God than deafies who can't speak!

    Interesting comment about Signed English being your first language – that is something I discussed with your sister – I told her that I feel that if it is the case, then English is her first language – ASL being her 2nd language. Signed English is considered "English" i.e. you are thinking in English not ASL 🙂

  3. Thanks, Shane Gilchrist for posting.

    To your first point, I agree that it is very useful to be competent in English. However, my original statement that English is seen as an oppressive force regards its relationship to Deaf culture and ASL. Since the avant garde of Deaf culture regard English as a foreign language, any encroachment on ASL is considered oppressive. And yes, English is my first language. 🙂

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