Jonathan Zimmerman: Gallaudet and the perils of culture





[Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of"Innocents Abroad: American Teachers in the American Century," which was published recently by Harvard University Press.]

I've never met Jane Fernandes. Nor do I know if she would have made an effective president at Gallaudet University, America's only liberal arts university for the deaf, which revoked her contract last weekend. But here's what I do know: The attacks on Mrs. Fernandes reflected one of the very worst trends in American life, extending far beyond the gates of Gallaudet. And it all starts with the term "culture."

Culture, it seems, defines us as human beings. Every person is born into one -- and just one -- culture. And culture imprints itself on each one of us, in exactly the same way.

Alas, some of us forsake our "real" culture for a fake or synthetic version. So the goal of social policy -- and, especially, of education -- should be to protect and defend colorful, authentic cultures from pale, inauthentic ones.

That's hogwash, of course. But it's hogwash that we live by. And last week, it got Jane Fernandes fired.

Although Mrs. Fernandes was born deaf, you see, she's not a true embodiment of "deaf culture." Why not? Because, her detractors say, she communicates mainly via oral methods rather than signs. Like most deaf children, she grew up reading lips and making sounds; she didn't even learn sign language until she was a young adult.

"Many of us don't see her as truly deaf," one Gallaudet sophomore told a reporter from Inside Higher Ed last spring, prefiguring the student protests that would bring down Mrs. Fernandes. "Even now she seems to prefer voice to sign."

Translated: there's only one way to be authentically deaf. And we know what it is.

True, there's a long and brutal history of repression against sign language among the hearing impaired. Most early institutions for the deaf punished or expelled children who spoke with their hands, insisting instead upon oral communication. But it hardly follows that every deaf person who prefers oral methods today -- or every parent who wants her child to have cochlear implants and other hearing aids -- is somehow in league with The Enemy.

By the same awful logic, Latinos who don't speak Spanish aren't "really" Hispanic; they're craven toadies to the Anglo oppressor. African-Americans who work hard in school aren't "really" black; they're just acting white. Homosexuals who want to get married aren't "really" gay; they're merely imitating straights.

Like the deaf, all of these groups have suffered for centuries at the hands of bigoted majorities who told them how to think and behave. Today, ironically, self-appointed policemen within these same groups try to impose their own codes of thought and behavior upon them. And they do so in the name of singular "cultures," which don't really exist.

That's right: cultures don't exist. There are millions of deaf people, in the United States and around the globe. But there is not and will never be a unitary "deaf culture," any more than there's a single black or Hispanic or gay one.

Once upon a time, white men pretended they owned a monopoly upon culture; by definition, everyone else lacked it. Then anthropologists and social activists brought forth a more democratic conception, insisting that every people had a culture -- and that no culture was better or worse than another.

This concept was one of 20th century America's greatest achievements, helping to spawn a far more just and tolerant society. It gave millions of repressed people a new sense of dignity and pride; even more, it taught many whites to accept and respect them. But today "culture" itself has become the problem, oppressing the same peoples whom it arose to defend. Deaf people don't need culture-cops to tell them how to act "really" deaf, any more than blacks or Hispanics do. Jane Fernandes is as deaf as any hearing impaired person on earth. Shame on her critics, for denying her the freedom to define this identity on her own.



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