Wednesday, April 24, 2002

Revisiting the Melting Pot
(This is a continuation of an earlier comment, "A pot where nothing melts", wherein I pull the comment threads back onto the main page and comment further. As a refresher, it was sparked by the deaf lesbian couple who had deaf children by choice.)

Oreta: First, although I realize this is not your main point, sometime around the time I was in college, the idea of the "melting pot" was being replaced by the idea of American society as a tossed salad. Lots of different ingredients, brought together and made into one dish by a dressing, ie American society.

It's much closer to my point than evolutionary adaptation, which can have had no effect on human social structure, which is what I thought I was talking about.

By the tossed salad analogy, Deaf culture would be celery escaping from the bowl to go live on the bread plate, but taking some dressing with it. (I don't think that metaphor holds up.)

Oreta: Second, the main point of this deaf couple's thinking on the issue of their child is, to me, not so much the issue of special cultures as the issue of parenting.

One of the most important lessons a parent can teach a child is that there exists a world out there that you do not control, but which you must tolerate and with which you must learn to interact. Teaching a child about his cultural heritage is fine. Incapacitating him such that he is limited to it is not.

Ulrika: What constitutes a defect is not an objective fact.

I'll phone these parents and ask them what they think about that. Oh, wait, I can't. I'm differently abled: My tools exclude them. One of us must be defective relative to the other. There are 999 of me for every one of her. Do the math.

Ulrika: For example, here, the sickle cell trait is only a risk.

Only one who will not concede that there is such a thing as a "defect" would say such a thing. Sickle cell surely is a defect, varying only in the degree to which one's available medical services can respond to it.

Ulrika: What I do find blameworthy is [Oreta's] horrible, vindictive attitude toward the two women in question. Wishing a child to hate his parents just so you can be avenged on them for beliefs you don't approve of is a species of awfulness I find hard to get my mind around.

Unworthy insult removed. Apologies to Ulrika.

You've mischaracterized Oreta's statement. She is assuming that the child will occasionally be exposed to people other than, and unlike, his parents. Unless they lock the child in the closet and feed him through a hole in the wall -- or live their entire lives in their Deaf ghetto, associating only with like-minded unhearing people -- this is inevitable. He will then discover that his parents have deliberately chosen to condemn him to life in a minority of significantly less than one tenth of a percent of the population. Oreta feels that these parents are misguided (that's probably the most charitable synonym I can choose) and have not acted in his best interests -- and unless they brainwash him pretty thoroughly, he is bound to discover this for himself sooner or later. She finds it difficult to believe that he will love them the more for it. So do I.

In short, she is assuming that the child will eventually outgrow his parents -- as most do.

These parents do not trust their child to continue to love them enough to "listen" to them if he can hear. I fail to see the moral difference between maximizing the chances of having a child born deaf and popping his eardrums at birth to make sure.

Ulrika: As for whether deafness is a defect, as I said, at length, there is no objective fact of the matter.

Yes, and as I implied, that statement was good for a laugh.

Ulrika: Deaf people have different adaptations for coping with dangerous environments than the hearing, and I'm not convinced that they are less effective. Quite the opposite.

"Quite the opposite"? So you are convinced that deaf people are better equipped to cope with dangerous environments? (You said it: The opposite of less effective is more effective, is it not?)

While you're busy driving Jerry up the wall by (sometimes) drawing distinctions between physical and mental adaptations, I'll suggest that "adaptations", in this context, might be a misleading word for the compensatory habits that many deaf people acquire. At the very least, we're introducing yet a third variety, behavioral adaptations. For simplicity's sake I'll stick with "habits". But then you know how backward we Southerners are. Perhaps you should use shorter words.

Ulrika: I understand feeling hurt and offended that there are deaf people who want nothing to do with me, but I think it's important to try to separate that sense of hurt from the argument before it colors your thinking with a tone of self-righteous outrage. I recognize that that is a difficult thing to do.

Do you actually know people who would interpret this as genuine concern for their welfare, rather than condescending?

My argument has nothing to do with me personally. Obviously I haven't expressed it clearly enough. I'll try again: If enough components of the Melting Pot decide they're not going to melt, it weakens the stew. America is strong because we are a nation of varied individuals working together for common defense and general welfare. The continuing fragmentation of American society is a far greater danger to the nation's continued existence than anything out of the Middle East.

There's a reason America is the sole remaining superpower, and Europe, well, isn't. If we become a collection of minorities who don't deal with each other, well, take a look at Afghanistan. That's where that road leads. Those segments of American society that have embraced separatism are able to do so and survive only because they are minorities, small percentages of the whole. They are deriving benefits from the whole while returning little or no value to it. Western civilization is big enough to absorb the losses, so far, but it's not a trend I'd care to encourage.

Ulrika: I think you are denying even the possibility that a parallel case holds for these women, i.e. that since they are congenitally deaf themselves, they know their child would suffer no ill effects from it.

Yep. I sure am. Are you seriously comparing circumcision to deafness?

As adult citizens, they do have the right to choose not to be cured should such be possible. And I will sadly concede that they have the legal right to impose this choice on their son. But morally, it gives me the creeps, and I have a right to say so.

Ulrika: The problem with teleological arguments about whether deafness (or the absence or presence of any other natural feature or process) is a defect is that they assume that the aural mechanism (or whatever) has a purpose, and if it does not fulfill that purpose, then it is broken or defective. This is an essentially normative claim. It assumes that there is a norm, a right way to be, and that variance from the norm constitutes error. This is fine as long as everyone initially agrees to assume that there is a Creator that has assigned a purpose to naturally occurring mechanisms, but absent that assumption it turns out to be impossible to get a good argument about "purpose" off the ground. You can't have a norm without someone to set it.

BZZZT You can easily have a norm without a Creator. That's what statistics are for. I realize your subtext throughout is to prove to Oreta that her religious beliefs are inherently evil and intolerant, but I think you've gone off the rails here.

Ulrika: My point about bats was raised to try to get you to engage in an empathy exercise. It appears to me that some deaf people stand in the same relationship to you or me that we stand in to bats. That is, they know that we have this sensory faculty that they have never experienced and cannot even imagine, but they do not feel less whole or able because they lack it. They do not miss it. They do not feel deprived. That is certainly how I feel about echolocation. And I would not feel that there was anything wrong with bringing up children who were also not able to echolocate, even if I could choose to have such children. i would almost certainly never choose to have children who could, unless there seems some very compelling need to do so, because it would leave me having to bridge a vast, yawning, largely unnavigable gap of experience between my child and me.

All parents encounter this "experience gap" sooner or later. Most face it the day their child asks for help with homework that they are unable to give, if not before. I have encountered a series of teachers, tutors, counselors, therapists, and psychologists in the course of raising my kids, and the parade is not over yet. But I never once considered intentionally crippling my kids in such a way that they will never encounter a question I can't answer. That, from my perspective, is what these parents have done to their children.

I exercised my empathy when I adapted H G Wells' "The Country of the Blind" for audio. If you're unfamiliar with the story, a lost mountaineer in South America stumbles into an isolated valley populated entirely by blind people (the exact mechanism of this is scientifically unlikely, and not relevant here). They live in an environment that does not threaten them, in which food is plentiful, so they have learned to function and govern themselves without sight. The mountaineer blithely assumes he will be a powerful man in this culture, thanks to his "fifth sense" -- but finds himself unable to convince the people of the valley that he is anything but a clumsy madman, speaking of absurd things that cannot be true, like "sky" and "clouds" and a world outside the valley. Of course, he is right, but he cannot prove it to them by any means they can accept.

I concede that these parents and their children will live happy and protected lives within the confines of the Deaf culture of the college. They will not successfully interact with the hearing world unless they understand it correctly, and the parents have made this more difficult than it needed to be for their children. But so long as they stay in their valley, which they appear to intend to do, they needn't worry about it.

I am tempted to attempt to itemize the various ways in which this Deaf community is subsidized by the larger hearing community, but I'm not motivated. This discussion stopped being fun several paragraphs ago.

Ulrika: Innuit have lived in the arctic regions for thousands of years, and borne children who bore children who bore children, so claiming they are poorly adapted to live there is arrant nonsense on the face of it.

They are poorly adapted, physically. However, the human brain is such a useful adaptation that it allows its user to overcome the limitations of his body even in the most forbidding of environments. You and Jerry agree on this, but are arguing over terminology. But I realize that torqueing Jerry is a pleasant diversion for you.

But this has nothing to do with anything I was talking about.

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