Its five months since my cochlear implant was activated. I’m bowled over at how being “hearing” again has expanded my potential as a moral agent in the world. By which I mean – I have better, instantaneous, access to spoken information which enables me to make my own decisions based on notions of right or wrong.
That isn’t to say that as a deafened person that I didn’t have moral agency. But it feels like I’m having to make more moral choices or that I’m coming up against a wider range of moral dilemmas more often.
To give a couple of the most obvious examples:
- I now have regular access to racism. Before I had to struggle to get access to people’s racism, and even then I wasn’t sure if I hadn’t just ‘got the wrong end of the stick’. But now I can hear people’s spoken streams of consciousness, I can join up the dots, and sometimes it’s just blatant. The culprits probably don’t think of it as racism, but I sure as hell do.
- With my CI I have full access to sexism. I’d also presumed in recent years (coinciding with me reaching the profound and total deafness threshold) that my married status had cloaked me with a sort of ‘off limits’ respectability. Something about me had altered to deflect unsolicited sexual advances (and don’t get too excited because I’m mainly talking about drunk tramps or workmen shouting “Alwight darling?” or drunk men scatter gunning inaccurate compliments at exhibition launches: “You look like Sophia Loren”.)
However I now realise my hearing loss had been protecting me from this sort of thing. The only shouting I heard on the streets when I passed through some sort of indefinable ‘atmosphere’ was that of what I assumed was my own clamouring paranoia.
The usual shouted or mumbled ‘compliment’ isn’t something that people want to repeat, especially not five times and then have to rephrase it. Looking back, maybe all those times I’d ended up cornered at parties, answering questions about why British Sign Language isn’t international and so on, maybe that conversation had started off with a wholly different topic:
e.g. “You look like Blah bluh bloh”
“Nothing…I mean…what sort of music do you like?”
“I’m deaf I have to lipread you.”
“Really? My cousin is deaf. She signs, I don’t sign, do you sign? It’s a beautiful language I’ve always wanted to learn to sign”
“You can learn at your local college if you google BSL Level 1 class”
“Is sign language international?”
“No?! But that’s mad. It should be international”
“It’s not international, every country has its own sign languages and dialects, like spoken languages do.”
“They should make it international”
By the by, I’ve written a similar vein of dialogue in a new play script I’m working on. “Is sign language international?” is a very imperialist question don’t you think?
What if you applied the same logic to other, spoken languages?
“You speak English? Wow. I’ve always wanted to learn English. They should make it international.”
Or how about:
“Wow German, is it international? No? Why not? It should be international. So should Mandarin, they should totally make Mandarin international. Crazy not to”.
Or how about,
“Is Esperanto international?”
“Great, I will learn Esperanto, that will be really useful.”
Anyway, hopefully the above digressive rant should iron out any confusion on this question for all time. Oh hold on…
Back to my earlier point…It had been so long since I had to react to anything more than my husband dutifully telling me I looked beautiful or a friend telling me I looked well, that the surprise of hearing random chripses from strange men leaves me cringing inside. But maybe that’s a reasonably blanket reaction – whether you’re a cyborg or not.
The first time I heard a tramp shout out to me in Victoria Park in London, I thought maybe my CI was making it up. Then a week or so later, in Leytonstone, a mechanic on a tea break did a shout out as I walked past the garage. Clearly my CI wasn’t making stuff up. I was so surprised I said, ‘hi’ as I walked on. I felt foolish, then thought -‘ ha! back in the game, what!’, then ‘no, that’s not what I’m after’.
Now when I come face to face with any cringe worthy sexism, I think this – if only I hadn’t spent so many years with de facto immunity to this sort of thing, maybe I’d have thought up some good comeback deflector lines to ensure that I’m not bolstering the imperialist, white supremacist capitalist patriarchy by cringing and smiling with embarrassment like a simpering drip.
This is what I mean when I say my moral agency has altered. I can be clearer now that something wrong – or right – has happened. Or I can investigate things more easily if I think something needs sorting out or better understanding.
As a deaf person my everyday moral agency often became focused on issues relating to my deafness. My main aim in many of the social arenas was to get out of situations as soon as was politely possible because it was hard, because the noise was horrible, because I was wasting my time etc etc. I had to get out quick before I got to the point where I’d have to spend a while getting over the depressing fact of my inability to understand the spoken form of that beautiful and very international language of English.
I’m trying to explain the before and after CI difference. I’ll be honest; pre-implant it was in some respects “easy” to float around not becoming too involved. It was easier to butterfly than to engage with people in depth. It was easier to talk about myself and maybe get the bare basics from others. There was little investment required other than the immensely fatiguing skill of lipreading – a massive brain killer. There was no way I could understand a load of spontaneous, racist or sexist information and then react to that in a way that I’d feel comfortable with. To me, the world presented as anti-deaf, but it rarely revealed itself as racist or sexist in the verbal sense – although I could certainly see structural racism and sexism.
Racist tourist information
On holiday in South Africa last month, I was treated to a few instances of racism in guest houses. We were advised to avoid bathing on such a beach or lake on the bank holidays because “it will be full of coloureds drinking” or “it will be packed with blacks drinking”.
Wow. Having missed the opportunity to question such a comment last time round, the second time I asked, “What will happen if we go to the beach?”
“You will have an experience and you mustn’t go. You’re just not in the right bracket. I can see you’re doing a face like you’re thinking I’m wrong but the beach is a no go area on New Year’s Day for people in your bracket”.
That particular beach felt rather militarized, with camouflage uniformed security guys riding around the sand on quad bikes (we saw one guy being “arrested”), and searching cars for illegal beach booze. The only thing that we saw drink-wise was black families filling bottles with sea water and sand which they took home to drink and vomit up as a detox cleanser. I never heard of this before but found out it is common.
Pre-cochlear implant I had a preference direct information rather than vague, manipulative sentences that imply things. Quasi diplomatic beating around the bush was annoyingly confusing. I suppose if I’d visited this guest house when I was deaf and been told not to go to the beach because I was in the wrong –
“What – wrong what? Black people doing what? What black people? A lot of them? A lot of black people – where? On the beach? Oh, great – not great? Why? Oh, drinking, No I won’t be drinking on the beach, what? …”
… I indeed might have been confused by the vague reply, by the implied racism in the words ‘having an experience’ and ‘wrong bracket’. I wouldn’t have understood the word bracket at all – too weird and random. In fact the word bracket would not have have come up as I wouldn’t have asked her a question. I might have noticed odd body language and the guest house manager’s pointed – we both know this is the REAL truth – facial expression, but been unaware of the tone of voice that assumed that I too would be frightened by the thought of being in the minority on a beach, race and class-wise. Worse still, I might have nodded and smiled! I might have smiled and nodded at racism by mistake.
After the manager had gone away I might have consulted my husband, who would have said, “She said we shouldn’t go to the beach as it would be crowded with black people. She was being racist”. If my husband didn’t give me that information (and there is no way I think he would have been able to interpret it to me at the time), my moral agency as such (deciding whether to avoid a place on the grounds of irrational racial prejudice) would have been delegated to him. Alternatively I’d have just decided to go to the beach with a vague sense of unease that the guest house owner had told me something negative about the beach which I didn’t fully understand. Or if I hadn’t understood her at all I’d have gone to the beach in blissful ignorance.
In truth what usually happened on past holidays is that when my husband and I arrived at guest houses was that the manager would chat for what seemed an eternity to Tom, whilst I waited. Whilst I looked at things and tried not to look rude or too mouse-like. At the end of the spiel Tom and the guest house owner would turn to me and ask, “Any questions?” And I’d try and think of a question, which would then usually turn out to have been already answered.
Not all South African guest house owners give racist tourist advice, but I suspect a good few do. What is disturbing is that they should believe that this advice is not only necessary but welcomed. The assumption and maybe the truth is that many white tourists expect and welcome this sort of advice. “Do check out the local Boer War museum, don’t go swimming in the beauty spot, it’s full of blacks”. Shame, as they say in South Africa.
Racism and ropey chat up lines aren’t the only area where I find myself less impervious. Racists and sexists excluded, the fact that I can get to know hearing people more deeply, quickly, means that I make more decisions based on knowing or on trying to find out what the other person’s needs are – rather than acting in a self-protective way – as I say – getting out of there (wherever) as fast as I politely – or as I often feared – rudely could.
All these parenthesis and awkward brackets I’m bombarding you with – I hope – give you a sense of the sense I have of ploughing a long neglected field. I have to keep stopping and working on stuff. Some sort of analogy like that. I used to over think things when I didn’t have enough information but now I have the information –well! I have a lot more to chew on.
This moral agency idea might seem a really dodgy thing to say, as though deaf people are not capable of it- which isn’t the case. After all, information comes in many forms not just spoken. Deaf people can consult multiple written and visual sources. But I do find I’m now getting more information from and about people than before – through speech.
Pre-implant, I sometimes intuited that something was up, felt a sneaking sense of unease. I’m now finding out I wasn’t paranoid, I wasn’t having an overactive imagination. It’s great. I generally have less anxiety, less of a sense of powerlessness, and this has a noticeable effect on my physical well-being.
When I was first switched on I said was glad to be able to hear the barrage of information humans excrete in abundance. Friends said – “People talk a lot of shit don’t they! Isn’t it boring!” World weary hearing people do believe there are some things you’re better off not having to hear.
It can indeed be irritating and annoying listening to some of the infernal human guff, but I stand by my previously stated belief that there is a lot of information, it comes at speed and it is – well maybe not pertinent – but it feels crucial that I know where other people are coming from, morally, psychologically and philosophically.
Interpreter moral agency interlude
As I mentioned before, I did have access to spoken information via interpreters, pre-implant, but people often behave differently in informal settings and so perhaps aren’t as candid at work.
And the presence of an interpreter often makes people say out loud “Don’t interpret that!” There is an element of increased self-consciousness, self-awareness and self -editing when I’m visibly deaf due to an interpreter at my side.
I have worked with some excellent interpreters who labour to provide social interpreting at work as they know how crucial this is to advance one’s career. I’m thankful for this for providing a world where I had more power than I did socially. But I’m not going to digress at length about interpretation here.
My CI identity is still under construction and I’ve been using – on a default setting – the dusty remnants of my hearing youth, recently rescued from a box in the attic – I’m picking up from the early twenties me who sometimes did, sometimes didn’t have a quick comeback when people said something ‘out of order’. Back then I had a gang of friends with enough wits and self-respect to go round, and we inspired, disagreed with and stuck up for each other.
These days I suppose my peers are probably under pressure from much more convoluted and weighty moral concerns than some bloke shouting ‘phwoar’ in the street. I feel like I have a lot of catching up to do, because I didn’t have all this information before, or I was caught up in fighting to get information all the time, or giving up and delegating.
The main skill I’m trying to improve now beyond actual hearing is of truly listening and absorbing. Maybe deafness helped me with that. But not always.
Maybe I don’t always need to react right away. People want to be listened to, which I already knew but frequently – still – forget and interrupt. People want to tell their stories. And I might not like what I hear.
But I believe the increase in directly understood information has made me more powerful, independent and secure. With a bit more practise, and armed with my deaf experience and new hearing, I will be taking no prisoners.