Strangers amongst us

We struggle with strangeness. Whether we fear who’s different or merely fear those who fear the different differently from us, home’s where our differences largely go unnoticed. It struck me how self-evident it has become to see public announcements, on a hurricane for instance, accompanied by somebody translating them into sign language. It’s difficult not to see this as progress; therefore difficult to see it as anything but self-evident. But it’s not self-evident. It’s the outcome of a struggle by strangers incapable of hearing and once discarded by society and probably labeled “deaf and dumb”. Well, it is their struggle and that of caring people who provided an understanding home to them in which they could be understood and, hence, come to their own understanding. How did they realize such a remarkable feat making acceptance of deaf people into something “so general as to make it unthinkable to see it as someone’s original idea”? The latter is Kafka’s description of that immediate insight which, once made, seems to become so entrenched in custom it is like it could not have been otherwise. Wittgenstein would probably say it becomes part of the grammar of deafness that it is a difference that ought to be accommodated. Still, however self-evident it may seem now it was anything but self-evident not so very long ago.

How can that be? What can we learn from it?

I cheated in the above paraphrase of Kafka. He does not use the verb think but – instead – used the verb feel. A challenge then could be that since it once was otherwise it could still shift again. It is a merely contingent gut feeling, and we should not take such gut feelings for granted since they are made of the same sort of stuff that made diversity such as – but not only – deafness suspect in the first place. That can’t be right though. In the example of Kafka (Goethe’s phrase “the castanet-rhythm of the children in wooden shoes”) there really is no difference between feeling and thinking; what can’t be unheard can’t be unthought, and vice versa (much in the same vein as “participatory sense-making” as proposed by H. De Jaegher). I may be a cheat but I’m no liar (I do apologize, by the way, for using such an auditory example in a piece relying on the history of deafness; the irony is not lost on me but I do wonder whether, when translated into sign language, it can be unseen).

“What stands fast does so, not because it is intrinsically obvious or convincing; it is rather held fast by what lies around it.” (Wittgenstein, On Certainty, 144)

This Wittgenstein quote is mostly taken as indicating that we have to rest somewhere: be quiet and accept things as they are. Things, on this reading, just happen to be in a certain way and the only thing we can do is avoid being confused about how they are. But it is so very confused to not ask yourself why some things stand fast and how they ar held so by their surroundings. Clearly they are held together by our social practice of language, and it is we who hold that practice together. Once the stranger is accepted as one of our own, she cannot be unheard anymore. Instead of being seen as radically different we see them as how we (our kids, our parents, our friends, …) could be. They are brought closer to us. They are brought home. We suddenly have a radical responsibility to interpret them. It is at this point – because we are scared by all this change, scared to see us as them, terrified at the increased responsibility we so get … that elaborate doctrines are constructed such as to dismiss this new claim on us. It is these constructs that are confused because they’re trying to isolate our language – our habits – from those who used to be strangers and now are amongst us.

Sure, we want to hold on to the convenient home we were used to. We want to be able to look out of the window and point our fingers at them. The thing just is that once we have seen the rabbit/duck we cannot unsee it. We can fight seeing it (that’s the kind of fight we see going on now, the fight not to want to see it) and that fight can be horrid and violent. It is literally a fight to keep the comfort of our bigotry: not to see the bigger picture. But it is a fight that will be lost because this myopic vision cannot stand fast anymore. Once the analogy is seen, everything that lies around it will force the previous certainty to shift in an irreversible way. Ultimately things will come into the new focus. We have no choice in the matter. Just like Kafka observed: it becomes self-evidently so. Not because it is just a gut feeling. Far from it, it has destroyed a gut feeling: what was noise has now become a specific rhythmic sound.

That is obviously not the end of it. There will always be strangers. We will also always be, to some extent at least, strangers. As the old book of Exodus has it: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Language is nothing else as trying to understand strangers and be understood by strangers. Language is there to bridge differences. To do that it needs to explain differences with a continuous risk of creating new dogmatic (patriotic, religious, scientistic, capitalist, …) boundaries that seem to stand fast but ultimately will start to drift under a pressure of understanding that the stranger’s difference is – after all the explanations – non-essential; non-essential because not at odds with the fact of participatory sense-making i.e. communication.

The fact of inclusion of people with disabilities – the strangers amongst us – literally does bring home the untenability of resting with exclusion of the different. As these different start to speak (make friends, have kids, parent, …) we reverse Foucault and see that there can be no lasting paradigm in which some people are othered. Obviously this was and is and will be a struggle but once people see the analogy between the strangers amongst us and the strangers that come to us, maybe it will be harder for those with confusing ideas to play the demagogue confusing people into feeling like enemies.

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