404: Deafhood and the Media
Have you been following the commentary about that Law & Order episode online? It's interesting seeing what people's reactions are... I notice a lot of aggressiveness in the Deaf community, with people clamoring "Everything must conform to MY idea of the Deaf identity" – or to some imagined ideal Deaf person. To me this is like someone saying the same thing about Black identity and woman identity: “Everyone must be like THIS to be Gay, like THIS to be Christian”, and to me people are saying this for much the same reason: fear. People are afraid, so they seek control. But this is counterproductive. Bernice Johnson Reagon* once said “There is nowhere you can go and only be with people who are like you. Give it up.”
She also said, “If you're in a coalition and you're comfortable, you know it's not a broad enough coalition.” The American Deaf community is nothing if it’s not a coalition, a melting pot of people of complex ethnicities and identities and diversities united by the common bonds of experience as Americans, a language, and a history. It makes sense we would deal with being Deaf in different ways. To really understand Deaf people and Deafhood, you have to let go of your personal illusions. These illusions are made by the baggage which forms our lives–the attitudes we encounter from doctors and priests and family members and each other which we react to, take in, accept or reject. We've moved, in human understanding, from the religious perspective to the medical perspective to the sociocultural perspective, and garnered our very own cultural and personal baggages from each. By understanding ourselves we get rid of this baggage. We discover our Deafhood. We find out what's been packed away. Like those exhibits at the Museum where you start with the Universe and end with enlarged microscope photographs of atoms and electrons. The outer to the inner.
But by focusing too hard on other people we are counter productive. So many of us have our own set beliefs delineating what it means to be a Deaf person–I've got my own, I'm honest about it. They're sometimes helpful, because they're part of our personal identity constructions. For example, I believe a Deaf person should stand up for Deaf people's rights, because by extension I stand up for my own. That's part of my identity construction of a Deaf person. And a lot of what I’m reading online is anger about the identity construction of specific Deaf ... television characters. What we saw on Law & Order was a well-researched and FICTIONAL story about a crime, one that broke some stereotypes by portraying a Deaf person as an active antagonist. Much criticism of the show was based on the fact that people couldn't see the situation happening in real life. The fear, apparently, is that hearing people will watch Law and Order and automatically think all Deaf people are hiding automatics. People fear this episode will create another stereotype for us to have problems with as Deaf people. I am not so sure. People know this is fictional. I watch the Sopranos, but I certainly don't think every Italian in a track suit is a mobster.
I think a lot of people were looking for this show to validate their identity construction of Deafness, and unfortunately that's impossible. Everyone has their own identity construction. The question should be, did you relax and enjoy the movie like you enjoyed the even-more-unrealistic Spiderman, or did you put the weight of validating your entire personal cultural identity on one episode of Law & Order (or History Through Deaf Eyes, which got similar criticism for including Deaf people who graduated from Clarke?)
One example of this is comments I’ve seen about how characters in this episode had varying levels of speaking ability. They were concerned people would walk away with the idea that all Deaf people could speak if they wanted to. Therefore, the logic goes, no Deaf people on television or in the movies should speak. Yet there are Deaf people who do speak! Today we call them hard-of-hearing; in Dr. Ladd’s book he describes the BSL term as DEAF-CAN-SPEAK, which might be considered more Deaf-friendly. So this identity construction IS possible. To the people who are complaining, it just isn’t their identity, and it might be threatening to their identity. Like Bernice Johnson Reagon said, they aren’t comfortable. They find themselves in a coalition, and it is difficult. Some things they see go outside of their boundaries of comfort. Some of them may go back to memories of pain. And one of the most important things to remember during all this is that their discomfort, their pain, and their perception that there is a threat must be respected! The thing is difficult!
Other cultural groups have exactly this same problem, which is cool because, you know, parallel experiences are yet another validating stamp on the passport of Deafhood. Black people were very frustrated by the portrayal of Black people on television, and in many ways still are, declaring stereotypes unfair just like we have been. So has the Gay community; so too did women in the past – and there was a day women weren’t even allowed on stage, and all women were portrayed as simpering, huge-breasted fools by men who knew little better and little else… (The first Juliet Capulet was a boy.)
Another major criticism of the show I saw while reading comments and essays was that the storyline focused on an issue polarizing to the Deaf community. I think that’s an unfair criticism–the show generally tackles tough issues. Should they change for the Deaf community? Do a Google search for Deaf and Cochlear Implants come up almost immediately. I think if people were able to suspend their disbelief a little instead of scrutinizing every minor detail they'd probably have enjoyed it just as they enjoyed every other episode. (And how much of Law and Order is realistic anyway?) The cool thing is that I bet quite a few hearing people did, and learned a lot about Deaf people as a result. But I do wonder, after all this: are we doomed to these battles on identity and politics? Is it possible that the personal and the political, in the Deaf community, are so closely tied they can't be separated? Time will tell....
*Ms. Reagon is part of Sweet Honey in the Rock, which includes an ASL interpreter in its roster for tours, and performed at Gallaudet University.