What Can Be Learned About Peace from the Culture of the Deaf?

By David Smith And Jocelyne Costin | 2000-04-01 12:00:00

There is little communication or understanding in our society between hearing people and those who are deaf. It may be surprising, then, to find that the hearing community can learn more about the concept of peace and peace education by understanding the culture of the Deaf community.

Peace education can focus on a number of different levels from inner harmony to constructive international relations. Our focus was on interpersonal relationships and inter-group relationships. In this regard, we believe that there are at least three ways the hearing community might improve our understanding and practice of peace by understanding the Deaf community. Firstly, enlarging our meanings of peace and peace-related concepts can be achieved through a study of the communications system used by the Deaf. Also, recognizing the strong integrating forces that help build community among the Deaf might improve our own skills in creating community. Lastly, developing a deeper understanding of the culture of the Deaf, the act of embracing and comprehending cultural diversity, can help build a peaceful mindset.

The Language of the Deaf

Some clarification is first needed with regard to terminology. The term "hearing impairment" is vague, as it usually refers to the whole range of hearing loss from mild to moderate and severe. The condition of hearing loss does not automatically signal membership in the Deaf community, or being part of Deaf culture. Such membership depends upon a common means of communication-sign language-and a shared value system. So deaf individuals, owing to their language and cultural identity, prefer to call themselves "Deaf." In North America, there are about 500,000 members who identify with this community.

American Sign Language (ASL), derived from a system which originated in France in the nineteenth century, is a visual language capable of expressing both concrete and abstract ideas by the use of hands, arms, face, space and movement. The language has a high degree of iconicity. For example, the notion of "heart" is conveyed by tracing with one of the fingers the shape of a heart on your chest. Over the last one hundred years, ASL has evolved with decreasing iconicity and increasing abstractness. In many cases, the iconic character of signs reflects the concrete origin or metaphor from which the sign has developed, like peace (a handshake of peace), love (pressing something/someone to one's heart), and disagreement (thinking in opposite ways). The physical, sensorial, active nature of signing is deeply meaningful and engaging.

Signing is a continuous flow of coordinated movement - body language. Nuances are conveyed by actions such as raising the eyebrows, lifting the elbows away from the body, and by the speed, force, and direction of hand movement. Unlike the communication of hearing people, continuous eye contact and attentiveness is necessary between those in dialogue. Consequently, communication is always an intense, direct, engaging, and intimate exchange.

Signing Peace

Peace conceptualizations tend to embody movements that are physically connective and circular whereas those that relate to war involve confrontational, frictional, and disconnected movements. The vast majority of concepts associated with peace, from serenity to compassion and cooperation, tend to merge into shapes that are aligned and symmetrical. In contrast, concepts such as anxiety, evil, and conflict are more abrupt, rapid, and discordant movements, which effort to reinforce the ideas of friction, isolation, and separation.

The sign for "cooperation" symbolizes joint action and togetherness, hooking the right index finger and thumb into the left index finger and thumb and moving both hands in a circular motion. The antithetical concepts of conflict and cross purposes are signed by crossing the index fingers and moving them downward diagonally, physically depicting colliding forces. The intensity of conflict is conveyed by both the vigor of the movements and accompanying facial expression.

The iconic nature of ASL and the accompanying movements and expressions convey a great deal of rich meaning. In oral-aural language, onoma- topoeia, tone, emphasis, and body language can reinforce or help interpret the meanings attached to words. However, it might be argued that hearing people have a potential to learn new, more engaging dimensions of meaning from signing, when it is learned as an auxiliary language.

Building Community

Deaf people have experienced a great deal of prejudice from the hearing community, since they have been regarded as "hearing impaired" and inherently dysfunctional. Deaf people are classified into pathological or cultural perspectives. The clinical-pathological model focuses on the biological abnormality, necessitating the use of technological aids to correct the problem. Here the needs of the Deaf revolve around the acquisition of speech, lip-reading, restoration, and the amount of hearing. This curative perspective implies that the Deaf deviate from acceptable standards of normal behaviors and values. Apart from lacking the appropriate skills to participate fully in the hearing community, the Deaf are perceived to be at risk of developing learning and psychological problems, owing to the oral-aural loss and concomitant communication difficulties.

In contrast, the cultural perspective stresses the Deaf's ability to fully participate in hearing and non-hearing culture as fluently bilingual and bicultural individuals. Within the cultural context, the Deaf are deemed highly sophisticated and systematically networked, having their own professional associations, community organizations, theaters, and religious institutions. Indeed group membership is contingent upon shared language, identity, and lifestyle rather than merely a hearing loss.

Essentially, a community is built when its members become increasingly interdependent, developing a common culture with shared values and goals. In the Deaf community, ASL has gradually become a shared language, providing a "common context," a basis for group cohesion and identity.

First Impressions

During introductions, the Deaf share extensive personal information about their community ties. They generally attend to specific information about others to create a familiar context and to build lasting relationships. Their highly developed interpersonal skills in combination with their keen interest in others help to "contextualize" each person within the community. Secrecy and privacy are deemed inappropriate and antisocial, since sharing information integrates and unifies the Deaf community. In fact, Deaf individuals find the hearing community's attitude to privacy "infuriating and perplexing." The formality and length of leave-taking rituals reaffirm communal bonds, as members readily reveal where they are going, what they expect to do, and when they will reunite.

The principal values embedded in the culture of the Deaf community appear to be attentiveness, intimacy, mutual respect, which create a strong sense of community.

While Deaf culture embraces solidarity, it is simultaneously a heterogeneous group. For instance, membership varies according to the conditions under which deafness came about, the history of deafness in their families, the use of ASL by hearing family members, the capacity they have for speech, their fluency in ASL and English, their willingness to participate in the Deaf culture. In North America, Deaf culture is described as a bilingual/bicultural minority, that is, they use two or more languages and live according to the norms of both hearing and Deaf culture.

A more profound awareness of the nature and cohesiveness of the Deaf community and their resolve to maintain their culture is needed on the part of mainstream society. The Deaf need to be perceived as fully competent individuals capable of governing their own affairs. They need to be given the opportunity to flourish in mainstream society without audist discrimination.

When mainstream society identifies the struggle of other groups, like the Deaf community, to achieve selfhood and identity, without discrimination, we then become vehicles for peaceful interrelations and contribute to building a more inclusive community.

The Challenge of Inter-Cultural Education.

The Deaf culture can be viewed from the perspectives of its members and the hearing community. The relationship between the Deaf and the hearing cultures can further insight into peace education.

From the Deaf point of view, their culture is a construct built around such "peace values" as open and inclusive conversation, camaraderie, and interdependence. From the point of view of hearing persons, Deaf culture has a quality of strangeness, and uniqueness, and is very imperfectly understood. Yet, in spite of continuing audist discrimination, it is increasingly accepted as a culture that provides identity, dignity, and fulfillment to its members.

The challenges of inter-cultural education between these cultures parallel those of developing cultures everywhere, like the individual nations within Europe challenged by the conception of a single European community, or like the ethnic entities within places such as Northern Ireland, Israel, and Yugoslavia. Each culture must recognize that it lives in both a closed and open system, allowing new elements essential to its continual regeneration, into the existing culture, while maintaining distinctiveness.

As an example in the Deaf culture, practitioners of ASL can communicate with one another extremely effectively, but could they communicate with deaf persons of other cultures who employ a different sign language? Recognizing differences but discovering the similarities of all people and of humankind allows for even greater human fulfillment.

Valuing Diversity

Because of their strong sense of community, the Deaf can be a useful model of cohesive community development. Knowledge of the dynamics of community building based upon values like those of the Deaf community may well be applied to strengthen weak communities for the well-being of all citizens. It can also help to eliminate audist discrimination, to replace it with respect, and to value diversity in our society.

"Mainstream" society also benefits by its openness to diversity. An on-going communicative relationship with minority culture groups such as the Deaf helps one to understand that we all have multiple identities, and that we share more comprehensive identities to the extent that we recognize similarities across cultures and sub-cultures and actively build our connection to them. For both the Deaf and the hearing, the person who embraces rather than shuns diversity, who reaches out rather than recoils in the presence of difference, is the person who is both a believer and practitioner of peace.

Jocelyne Costin is a graduate student and David Smith a professor at McGill.

Peace Magazine Spring 2000

Peace Magazine Spring 2000, page 26. Some rights reserved.

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