Moments of Permanence - Post a comment

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June 15th, 2009 - 08:16 am
I'm very glad you're doing better! I was quite worried when I read the earlier comments.

And, all right. Well. There's ... a lot to say, and a lot to respond to, and a lot to explain, and I mean a lot, because this shit is complicated, but here's a beginning.

To be honest, how I came across this entry was part of the hurt. It was utterly accidental. You came up in IM conversation with a friend as a good person to read in general, particularly for race-related stuff, but she warned me that you had deaf fail a week or so ago, and I went to see, because that's just what I do, really -- I go see. And what I found was that you apparently thought my plight, as you saw it, was important enough to post about and make a community toward rectifying, and plan things in attempting to make it better, and crusade for against those pointing out flaws, but in doing so you didn't reference me, my post, or my words. I felt like a cipher, my pain made into a metaphorical problem to be fixed, rather than a person being responded to.

This isn't to shame you or guilt you -- simply explaining a part of it.

And the vibe I got from your post was that I was exactly that: an anonymous deaf person whom you had read and thought to help, but without speaking to me or getting to know me, or leaving a comment to say that you had. Even a stab at my name or what I had said would have helped prevent you from falling into that trap, because it is a trap, a trap of privileged thinking. I'm sure you're familiar with it from racefail, and the various posts there, about how the words of nonwhite/chromatic people, how the words of women, how the words of trans/genderqueer people, etc. etc., are appropriated. I felt appropriated and, as a result, made invisible.

This is, in some ways, particularly problematic -- in my view, but I could be wrong -- when it comes to issues of disability, because what we are, what works for us, what we have struggled for and toward, is often something to be fixed by the abled. And what I saw in your post was that you were approaching squarely from this view, and furthermore from the view that this paragraph of mine -- which I believe was the one which coloured my post for you:

Text and speech also hurt, and they hurt in old, familiar ways. [...] My words feel distant from me, clumsy: they are not mine. They are translations from -- from what? I don't know. I don't know, and I feel lacking in a language of my own and forced to work in a second that is not quite mine, that trips me in pronounciation and speech-based rules and memory. The rules are not ones I understand.

It should not be that I feel that something is missing, and yet I do. I feel it acutely. [...] there, everpresent, a restriction and a reminder, not always remembered but always hurting.

It is particularly telling to me that you immediately jumped from my personal feeling that "text and speech do not feel familiar", from my wish that I had the physical and mental spoons to be capable of learning sign language, to "Deaf people need a written language".

Can you see the disconnect there? The jump from my thinking to your privileged thinking? The twist from wanting 'a language I can communicate natively in', which I had said quite clearly was sign language, to the assumption that true, native communication = spoken and written?

You make this jump in some of your first few paragraphs in the post:

I've read and been told that sign language is not, in fact, a mapping of English to gestures; the syntax and modes of expression are actually different.

This makes perfect sense to me, as a linguist; a one-to-one mapping wouldn't be the best way to make sign a natural language.

You then go on to assume that literacy is what makes a language, when what what I am speaking of, and wishing for, is a language that is native to me, instinctive, one that I can use without coming up short. In trying to help, you reinforce the problem.

It will probably help to understand where I'm coming from if you try to see this in terms of other -isms, and in context also of racefail and mammothfail, where you were quite on the ball.

This sort of twisting of viewpoint, privilege-based distortion, happens to me and to other deaf people, and to deaf people in general and throughout history, a a lot. Like [personal profile] trouble said, there is a huge, long, varied history of hearing people attempting to cure, fix, help, improve, etc. conditions for deaf people. Including and particularly language, which is tied very closely to culture when it comes to sign language. It's a very painful history, and I'm sorry to say your post and your comments invoked most of it, because that history largely involves hearing people speaking for deaf people.

In this paragraph in your comment here, you as a hearing person are speaking for me:

the problem is that there can be Deaf people fluent in sign language, but constrained to write in English and forever feel trapped in an alien language, which means a serious fucking flaw in the education of at least some deaf children.

Quite aside from your choice to speak for me, what you say there is not the issue. It is actually quite, quite, quite far from anything I recognise.
This is where and why [personal profile] lauredhel's tolerance ran out, I believe. In her reply to that comment, she picked out this sentence of yours: "I think it's a deep, profound wrong for people to be without a proper, sufficient language of their own."

I am not without a proper, sufficient native language of my own because sign language lacks an orthographic system. At all. I am not without that language because there are no 'books of ASL poetry' -- completely ignoring the existence of video collections of, indeed, poetry, which serve the same function in the appropriate modality -- and I am not without that native language because I am fluent in sign language and constrained to write in English.

I am without that native language because of the privileging of English speech and writing over a manual language that would have best served me. I am without a language that I would have felt comfortable with using, a manual language where I was not at an inherent disadvantage of comprehension and understanding that never quite goes away, no matter how fluent I am or how powerful my hearing aids are or how closely I listen, because of the attitudes that you express in this post -- which are the prevailing attitudes toward the signing deaf by the hearing, and deaf people as a whole.

That is where the hurt came from. You were using my lack of a native language as a metaphor to allow you to further push my language away from me, to further delegitimise a method of communication, a means of language, that has been depreciated, devalued, banned, driven underground, dismissed, ripped apart, denied and decimated by hearing people over centuries of history where hearing people presumed they had the right to speak for us.

It wasn't so long ago that using manual languages instead of spoken/written earned you the title of "deaf and dumb". Dumb, as in without speech. As in, without language, and a lesser person for it. Rather close to subhuman, in that we were deemed incapable of any communication whatsoever. Not so long ago. Last century, in fact. This shit is recent. It's on-going.

There are still debates over whether deaf people should be taught sign language, over whether it's a valid language -- true sociolinguistic studies and research into it only really began picking up pace and insight some thirty-fifty years ago at the most. In this post, you appropriated that struggle and redefined it to a hearing perspective of teach them to say the words and they'll talk/feel/be like real people.

You may not have intended it -- but that is what you invoked. That is a history which you invoked. That is a history which you invoke with the title alone. The title, all by itself, hurts me to see. "Deaf people need a written language." Who are you to say that? How can you say that? Need. A written. Language.

That ties right back into that history. And because of where you started from, your fail continued, and others were upset with you, very much so. Because your basic, privileged framing, your privileged thought, was the issue, and the rest simply followed from there.

That issue of basic framing is probably something you're familiar with, that issue of invoking history is also something you're probably familiar with, from anti-racism and anti-sexism discussions. Particularly anti-racism, because although the oppressions are different, they do share quite a number of similiarities, including just how recent it is that we were seen and treated and allowed to be seen as people. That our signing speech was seen as speech at all.

You're dealing with living history, I'm afraid; very bitter, very painful living history. And that invocation caused a lot of anger, and a lot of pain. Because my denial of a language that was mine came out of exactly the same framing that you were using in your post about how you wanted to 'help' me and 'people like me'.

There's a lot of fail, true. But as far as I can tell it's those two particular points which are the most pernicious and began the cascade of fail. There's a lot more to discuss, of course, a LOT more, a LOT LOT LOT, and I am not kidding when I say there is, but those two things -- and I can clarify them further and in specific if you have questions -- are where we need to start, I think. Because otherwise our viewpoints, and our framing, are simply going to be too different.
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