Here is the transcript:
Hello my name is Sophie Woolley. I’m a profoundly deaf cyborg. I lost my hearing as an adult. Now I hear via cochlear implant. I was activated or switched on in August 2013. This is my first ever podcast.
Today I’m going to talk about why we watch YouTube videos of deaf people crying. I’m not saying we shouldn’t do that, I just think it is worth examining.
The first type of video is of a deaf person crying after their cochlear implant is switched on for the first time. These switch on videos go viral. The second type of video, more specifically, is a Samsung advert in which a Deaf man is filmed by hidden cameras being surprised by neighbours who greet him in sign language, for the first time. When the trick is revealed, the Deaf man cries, and so do we. We weep cathartic tears and feel with him.
The third video is not of a deaf person crying at all, it’s a hearing dad of four children in a spoof video. Someone on my Facebook called it mock desperation porn (then deleted their post). The dad is shown crying tears of joy after hearing silence for the first time.
I have to say, I felt much better after watching the spoof video than I did after watching videos of deaf people crying. As a deaf cyborg in a hearing privileged world, I prefer to watch satire about noise tortured hearing people cry, but maybe I’m just nasty. As a cyborg I know I can switch the noise of the world off in an instant. I have an escape hatch, which hearing people don’t.
So about the switch on videos, why do they appeal to millions? Sometimes the deaf person becomes an internet sensation. The videos are shared by thousands and the popularity of the videos annoys some deaf people for a number of reasons and the popularity of the videos can feel oppressive.
I have a confession to make. I have a switch on video, which is so boring, apart from my mum who is very funny in it – it is so boring that a director edited it into a spoof movie trailer to try and make it more exciting and emotive.
I wish my switch on had presented itself in a more exciting and emotionally explicit way for the camera, so that I could have become an internet sensation. It is always nice to be sensational. I would have felt very modern, but also exposed – and for what? So that millions of hearing people could project their own desires onto me and misunderstand what I was feeling in that moment? I was thinking and feeling some weird shit in that moment, you have no idea.
When I saw the Samsung advert featuring a deaf man crying because hearing people had learnt to sign (for an advert), I thought, what is happening to deaf people’s tears? Maybe they are being appropriated and sold back to us now in a bottle marked drink me, and you will become a bigger person.
Is there a connection between the tears in the advert and the tears in the switch on video? Are we all, deaf and hearing, being infantilised as we click play for instant happy ending weepies?
Why do we like to watch deaf people crying with apparent relief and joy? Let us for a moment treat both switch on videos and the samsung advert as fictions that harness our fears and desires. I don’t think switch on videos are fictions, but just bear with me for a moment.
The reason why we watch both type of video is the hook, which is the moment of relief in the deaf person’s eyes, having been freed from their isolation. The hearing world is the hero, and the deaf person the damsel in distress.
What is the emotion being evoked in the Samsung advert? It is the universal human emotion of compassion, of needing to connect with others. None of us wants to be alone in the world. Prolonged isolation is a form of punishment. We use it to torture our suspected terrorists. We see in the deaf people crying videos the acute relief at escaping the isolation of deafness and we might also see that the strain and trauma of the isolation repeats at the moment of release.
Let me go back to the idea of the switch on video as a fiction. They are a fiction because they are watched out of context.
And also as a deaf person, I found it hard to suspend my disbelief before my surgery. I tried to look for truth in so many videos, but I could find no proof that it would help me very much and it felt cruel to go there in my head. Sometimes I felt like going for implant surgery was submitting to an oppressive atrocity, a Frankenstein procedure.
Also it felt cruel that I had to change myself with invasive surgery in order to connect with people. I felt rational about it but also angry about it. The switch on videos were an abomination, a humiliation, a desperate act of self mutilation. It does not harness our desire, it realises a nightmare. I don’t feel that way now, but you get the picture.
So perhaps it would have been easier for me to watch a fiction that other people in my town would all learn to sign. Maybe a whole town could be made to sign, inspired by that advert. But I don’t think so. It is true that some villages with a high proportion of deaf families do all become bilingual But how many hearing towns decided to learn to sign as a community after sharing that video online? How many people decided to rewire the world around a deaf person. How can that advert come true?
The Samsung advert is a real fiction but it allows us to dream. It harnesses a desire that other people will change because we’re worth it.
It would be good to do an experiment and try and teach a whole street to sign, or the key people in that deaf person’s daily life. Then film it all and see if you can make the advert come true.
If people sign to me in shops and so on I do think it’s lovely and I want to hug them and get emotional. But I feel equally emotional when I hear someone say have a nice day, because I can hear now. And then I wonder how we get beyond the smalltalk which seems to me to be the hardest thing for anyone, deaf or hearing as we pass on and retreat back into the comfort of the viral weepies of our smart phones.