Deaf Ears


The demands of the few test the patience of the many.

Earlier this week, the protesters at Gallaudet University got their way. After months of blocking off campus entries and occupying administration buildings, students and faculty at the school for the deaf in Washington, D.C., convinced the board of trustees that the university's provost, Jane K. Fernandes, should not be its next president.

Different protesters have different agendas, but there are many who seem to think that Ms. Fernandes is not qualified to lead the school because, they say, she is an "audist," someone who believes that the ways of hearing people are superior to those of the deaf. Ms. Fernandes, who is deaf, has not expressed these sentiments, but she did not learn sign language until she was in her 20s and she does seem to think that growing up in a hearing family and being taught in mainstream classrooms have their advantages.

A lot of groups in recent years — feminists, gays and lesbians, a variety of ethnic minorities, not to mentioned the disabled — have appropriated the language of the 1960s to describe their struggles. The students at Gallaudet have gone further, adopting the rhetoric and behavior of the more radical elements in the civil-rights movement. Like the black-power activists before them, the deaf are supposed to be an oppressed minority. And Ms. Fernandes is a sort of "Uncle Tom" figure who denies her own identity for the sake of pleasing the oppressor, that is, the hearing world. She has been accused of not being "deaf enough" the way certain blacks are not "black enough."

If this sounds slightly absurd, well, it is. But the desire to declare victim status — to demand from the surrounding society new rights or a confession of new sins — is apparently irresistible. It reached the point of self-parody recently in San Francisco (of course).

A recent article in this newspaper chronicled the struggles of Carolyn Abst, the owner of an architecture firm, who tried to clean up one of the city's worst neighborhoods. She wanted to plant trees, give people jobs and get rid of the drug traffic and sex trade. But her neighbors were horrified. "This was a place where people who don't fit in, the ostracized and cast-off, could find a place of their own," a former prostitute named Matt Bernstein Sycamore told our reporter Bobby White. Mr. Sycamore belongs to a group that put up "Wanted" posters with Ms. Abst's picture.

It appears that, in certain quarters, we have reached a point of nonjudgmentalism at odds with common sense and a point of group-entitlement that denies real suffering, or real merit, its proper dignity.

So it seems that "fringe" residents must also have their "identities" respected. One retired stripper in the neighborhood heads the local Sex Workers Organized for Labor and Civil Rights. Civil rights? It takes a special kind of audacity to choose to live as a prostitute — or, for that matter, a bum or drug addict — and declare yourself a victim in need of "rights," as if you belong in the same category as African-American citizens whose only crime was having the wrong skin color.

But what about the protesters at Gallaudet? Are they right that the deaf experience is comparable to that of blacks suffering from racial prejudice, requiring militant behavior and group pride? It is true that, like skin color, deafness is not a choice, although cochlear implants are allowing more and more "deaf" people to hear if they choose to do so. That possibility is criticized by the more radical members of the deaf community, though, who see such implants as a betrayal of "deaf" identity.

Such extreme reasoning lies behind the Gallaudet protests, along with the assumption that the imperfect condition of the deaf is stigmatized as race once was. But is that true, even now? And, more to the point, isn't it a kind of false consciousness to prefer silence to sound? In any case, such a preference is surely not comparable to invidiously choosing white skin over black.

Similarly — to return to San Francisco — it is a confusion of realms to pretend that the lifestyles of prostitutes or drug addicts require the kind of "respect" that we confer upon sober, middle-class citizens. It appears that, in certain quarters, we have reached a point of nonjudgmentalism at odds with common sense and a point of group-entitlement that denies real suffering, or real merit, its proper dignity.

Religious folks talk about a person's soul, something intangible and permanent that makes people worthy of compassion whatever their condition or the choices they have made. The language of the Founders — referring to Creator-endowed "inalienable rights" — was, in that sense, soulful. The civil-rights protesters of the 1960s only wanted the rights bestowed by God to be recognized, finally, by man. In other words, they were appealing to a standard that was already there.

But now that intellectual relativism requires us to talk about "identities" not souls, the protesters have to discover other reasons they should be respected — like the supposed authenticity of "deaf culture." If they think the civil-rights struggles were tough, they may find the battle against common sense to be downright impossible.



Naomi Schaefer Riley. "Deaf Ears." The Wall Street Journal (November 3, 2006).

This article reprinted with permission Opinion Journal from The Wall Street Journal editorial page.


Ms. Riley is the Journal's deputy Taste-page editor and the author of God on the Quad; How Religious Colleges and the Missionary Generation Are Changing America.

Copyright © 2006 Wall Street Journal

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