2000-3255.1_expandedWhile reading neurologist Oliver Sacks’ Seeing Voices: A Journey Into the World of the Deaf, I found myself suddenly furious and ranting about the 1880 Milan Congress on deaf education.

Pardon my libertarian cliche as I found something authoritarian to rant about in a seemingly apolitical book, but there it was. The thing about this conference was it dovetailed more than a century of the deaf golden age — 100 years of this amazing realization that the deaf could be educated, and were neither stupid, nor “dumb” as in mute. Signing was the answer to their particular difficulty in communication. It was the answer, because the deaf were already using it.

In the 1755, Charles-Michel de l’Épée founded a free deaf school. He had became worried about the immortal souls of the deaf, so he figured he could help. So he taught the deaf of Paris to write and to communicate. Except, before he could teach them, he had to learn the Sign they were already using. (Sacks notes in his book that even among a few deaf siblings, a type of signing evolves. Paris had a Deaf community of about 200.)

de l’Épée first tried to import French grammar into the existing signing, but that eventually fell away. An educated man helped these people, and reached them; taught them to write so they could express themselves to the hearing. But he and his teachers also had to learn their language first. Their local knowledge was necessary before any exchange could take place.

And Sacks writes that even de l’Épée undervalued the depth of communicative power within signing. One generation of a language is a pidgin, but the second generation can easily become a true language. de l’Épée for all of his philanthropic goodness still didn’t quite get it in terms of signing. But he made a hell of a start.

One students of de l’Épée  eventually traveled to America. Schools opened there. A deaf person who speaks American Sign Language (ASL) can still communicate very easily with one who signs in French.

Neurologically, Signing is a true language. It just happens to be a spatial one. There have been many attempts to make this bizarre, fascinatingly distant cousin of all verbal tongues into something more respectable — something more linear. Signed Exact English (SEE) is one such example. Instead of the spatial grammar, syntax, etc. it is what it says it on the tin — the exact sentence structure of spoken English imported into gesturing. Sacks notes that kids who learn SEE will begin to improvise their own ASL-like signs. The rigidity of SEE is not the ideal. It is still an attempt to make the deaf exactly like the hearing, when the freedom and uniqueness of ASL and other Signs are what makes them a powerful tool.

And yet, for a century after the 1880 Congress, there was this authoritarian backlash against ASL , and even against any signing at all in most places. Sacks’ book includes depressing quotes from a British man schooled in the ‘20s and ‘30s at a place where signing was prohibited. Only the sometimes-excruciating task of teaching the deaf to speak (oralism) would be permitted. This man lost his hearing after becoming verbal so he did better with oralism.

If you are born deaf, oralism is a years and years-long task. With ASL, multiple students can learn to communicate, and then learn all the other general education they should be soaking up. Sacks notes that oralism was a tragic blow to the well-rounded education of the deaf.

And yet Sign was banned by educators all over Europe and the USA.

So, what did the kids do when the adults weren’t around at the school the British man attended? They signed. Of course they signed. Because they knew what sort of communication worked best for them. So they did it.

While reading Hearing Voices — which delves a lot into what “speaking” this special language does to the brain, as well as the dangers of being born deaf and missing the critical period for language, signed or otherwise — I was struck by the beauty of this communication. And by the fact that the deaf did not need someone hearing to teach them to communicate. They only needed a boost to finalize and to standardize what was already happening. They needed general education, and someone willing to teach that. But the hearing “expert” didn’t do everything. He just came to where the deaf already were and helped them hash out what was already on its way to becoming a language.

And then, 100 years later in the true, clunky, authoritarian fashion, a bunch of “experts” met faraway and voted against all of this success.

How governmental is that? What a perfect encapsulation of the disinterest of the “expert” in learning from the little guy who knows his life a lot better. According to Sacks, this Milan decision was disastrous. In the Deaf community, it’s a legendarily bad moment. The moment they were supposed to be shoved into the round hole of mainstream, hearing society, instead of doing for themselves what they did best. The condescending, authoritarian backfire.


Now, I confess that the final section of Sacks’ book is a little least interesting on its face. Instead of marveling at the brain, and at what Signing does, the final section is a look at “Deaf President Now!” a week in 1988 which, to the Deaf community at Gallaudet University barricaded their college for a week after being given yet another hearing president, and being told by a member of the school board that the deaf are not yet ready to live in society.

Sacks is struck by the beauty of the civil rights movement, and by the site of of so much impassioned Signing speeches. But to most of the hearing community, especially to a libertarian skittish about identity politics and college protest, it doesn’t quite make sense. Today we have the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education to detail us with horror stories of PC colleges who commit such laughably Orwellian transgressions as censoring a transcript from a free speech panel (Smith College). College currently seems like the place for liberalism, minutia, and yes, being told to check your privilege for every little thing.

And that does include “ableist” privilege. Smith’s peak of lunacy was removing the word “crazy” from the transcript of the speech panel, because it was “ableist.”

However, I think I checked my ableist privilege while thinking about the Gallaudet students. Without even thinking about it, I checked it. When I first learned that Deaf (capital d) culture was a thing, I remember being confused. No, the deaf are not inferior in any way to me — except, in their ability to hear. But were they actually pretending that a lack of hearing was not, let’s call it what it is, a disability?

(My blind friend would prefer to see, I think. And my left leg works, but it’s got some metal and missing bone. I wouldn’t mind it being in better shape. Is that legitimate to say? Is ableism all about comparing wounds and scars and defects, which eventually can be claimed and turned into a good somehow if it is bad enough? This is why “privilege” is such a limited word.)

I confess to being at loss as to why the hearing or not status of the president of a college matters. But then, I am hearing. I don’t get it. Thinking back to the condescension of the Milan Congress, I could understand a little bit why having someone who understood what deafness is like being in charge of education would be important to people.

Learning about an actual culture, and the way an actual language was squashed by a top-down mandate made me much more sympathetic to this idea of capital-D Deafness. This is what human beings do in response to being treated like children, or like lesser people. They rally themselves, and they give themselves pride. Their “affliction” does not remove their human qualities. And they are going to remind us of that. In itself, this is a good thing.

(And this is why — yes, even in a world where PC culture can go crazy — to ask “gee, when’s white history month?” means you’re a deliberately obtuse dope.)

On ABC Family, there is a teen-centered television show called Switched at Birth. There are some less interesting subplots — the two main girls discover in highschool that they were swapped at a hospital by accident —  but the most fascinating parts of the show take place at the deaf school where one, then both of the girls attend. Most characters now use some kind of ASL. Many secondary actors, and one main one, are entirely deaf. Entire, rapid-fire ASL conversations take place between two characters sometimes, with subtitles provided. You can see what Sacks describes — the whole body quality of the fluent signers, how they use their faces and their mouths. It’s fascinating. It looks more alien than even the most difficult foreign verbal language, yet its so undeniably communicative.

And one character has two deaf parents. His father has cochlear implants, a controversial thing among the Deaf. The mother/teacher is ideologically Deaf. She speaks of a divide between hearing and deaf. She is not a bad person, but she seems extreme to the casual watcher. The hearing watcher, perhaps.

One of the main characters — the actress is only heard of hearing — speaks and signs. She is clearly often caught between the world of wanting to be normal, and wanting to be with “her people” in the Deaf community. The show never endorses one side or another for her, just asks watchers to sympathize with her conflict.


Perhaps the Deaf teacher is extreme in some of her views. I really don’t know. Yet they stem from being screwed over by clueless authoritarians. Understanding anger is not always endorsing what that anger leads to or concludes about how the world should be run. Libertarians know this, but we don’t seem to have learned it as well when it comes to groups at home.

Regardless, the simple nuance of characters on the show — their conflict –,  combined with Sacks’ fascinating books gave me a lot more of an appreciation for this issue than a million “check your privilege”s could have done.

And I still find Smith’s censoring absurd. The same with every similar college, or any other instance, of language being treated both like a nuclear bomb and a piece of clay. One Smith student wrote in the Huffington Post about how at this free speech panel, a woman committed “an explicit act of racial violence” by saying the word “nigger.” A word can be so powerful that its academic context doesn’t matter. Yet the word “violence” can apparently mean anything at all, including speech.

It’s bullshit. It should be criticised. Do we need to choose between cheerfully saying a loaded, powerful, hurtful word willy-nilly, or daring not to speak its name even while discussing free speech? We do not. Nor do we need to choose between ignoring certain groups or identities and pretending that they need to be babied and granted special privileges.

I want a tolerant world. I do not want a world that looks like Smith College.

Sacks’ book gave me a great appreciation for the fights and struggles of the deaf, even in an identity politics sort of way. But it also gave me more of a love for the power of language. Language is powerful — it changes your brain! people who couldn’t hear said, fuck it, alright, we’ll speak with our hands! — but it is not violence. It needs to be protected from terrifying, well-meaning students who want to collar it like a dog and control it, just like it needed to be protected from clueless educators who banned Sign.

You can mindlessly check your privilege, you can censor transcripts, you can be offended by everything. Or you can treat the disabled, the deaf, the mentally ill, or any other group with a long, tough, scrappy history as individuals. It doesn’t offend libertarian thought to recognize that there are group dynamics at play in oppressed groups. It isn’t even unlibertarian to say, yeah, I don’t understand the importance of a deaf president to the Gallaudet students, but they wanted someone who might better understand their lives. That’s not the worst thing in the world.

Libertarianism is individualistic at its core, but it does not deny the right or the logic in certain group dynamics. We need not perfectly understand with or agree with the cultural angles of Deafness. We should, however, appreciate the marvel that is human beings denied the ease of using one of their senses learning to speak with their hands. And that they kept and will keep doing so no matter how many edicts from above claim that there’s now a better way.