“[An abortion protester at a campaign event] handed me a pamphlet. 'Mr. Obama, I know you're a Christian, with a family of your own. So how can you support murdering babies? I told him I understood his position but had to disagree with it… I will pray for you,' the protester said. 'I pray that you have a change of heart.' Neither my mind nor my heart changed that day, nor did they in the days to come. But that night, before I went to bed, I said a prayer of my own–that I might extend the same presumption of good faith to others that had been extended to me.”—Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope
Governor Dennis Daugaard has recently announced that he is not able to make it to the National Association for the Deaf (NAD) conference in Louisville this summer. Because of this announcement, some might wonder, “What is the point of continuing the discussion on engaging Daugaard?” To answer this question, there is actually no point but only because that would be the wrong question to ask. Although my original article on May 30th talked about the importance of engaging Governor Daugaard, it was actually about the importance of political engagement and not about enabling his voting record. (Thus the revised title of this article.)
To be clear, my dream for the NAD is akin to that of Alison Aubrecht, Elena Ruiz, and Octavian Robinson. We are all bothered about how deaf and hard of hearing Americans are being systemically excluded from serving our country in the military; students of color are leaving Gallaudet and NTID/RIT in disproportionate numbers; the NAD is not as transparent and inclusive as it should be; deaf schools are being closed; online video content are not captioned and accessible; and marginalized communities within the Deaf Community remain marginalized. But how should the NAD carry out its mission and address those unacceptable realities? That is precisely where we differ.
In other words, my rationale for continuing this dialogue is to clarify two fundamentally different visions of how to promote, protect, and preserve the interests and rights of deaf Americans. The choice is solely yours to make, as it should be, and it will ultimately shape the future of our community and, more importantly, the real lives of deaf Americans. I, for one, want to believe that by deliberating policy specifics with unexpected people to find common ground and build imaginative coalitions, we will make incremental progress in rectifying social injustices. Individuals such as myself endorse deliberation and engagement with those who see the world through different lens because we could help each other see more clearly. We also recognize that democratic politics makes for strange bedfellows and attempt to extend the same presumption of good faith to others that we wish to be extended to us.
Since Ms. Aubrecht, Ms. Ruiz, and Mr. Robinson’s response to my article was if they were conducting a live conversation, I will continue in that spirit to address some misunderstandings and to continue the healthy dialogue about the ideological, philosophical, and political direction to which the NAD should head. I have organized their comments based on common points and highlighted them in bold. My responses are immediately found below.
DISCUSSION PARTICIPANTS: AA: ALISON AUBRECHT, ER: ELENA RUIZ, OR: OCTAVIAN ROBINSON, BS: BRENDAN STERN
BS: “As a white, deaf, heterosexual male majoring in political science with a special focus on civil rights and minority movements, I have been following the controversy about the NAD’s decision to invite Governor Daugaard to present at its biennial convention in Louisville over the past several weeks with fascination and trepidation.”
ER: “…the disclaimer that one specializes in studies of ‘civil rights and minority movements’ does not remove the complicity that one would have with systems of privilege that act as deterrents to social justice if an intensive ally-building process has not been sought out.”
AA: “Yes. There does seem to be an insertion of the suggestion that “I’m white… but I can speak to those issues because I learned about them in school.”
BS: My comment that I study civil rights and minority movement was never intended to be a “disclaimer.” It was a rationale for my fascination with the ongoing debate. Similarly, my acknowledgment of my status as a heterosexual and white male was not to suggest that I understand privilege completely or to absolve myself of my privileged positions. Instead, it was to explain my trepidation, knowing too well that I was speaking as a white, heterosexual male and without the lived experiences of those who are not white, heterosexual, or male. I am sensitive to this fact and appreciate how your ongoing dialogue, along with your hard work in the past several weeks, has contributed to a larger appreciation of the importance of examining systems of privilege in our society and community, including those of my own.
AA: “There was an underlying message of…us powerless deaf people gotta take what we can get…One might infer from this statement that we are “stuck,” and that we “need” people like Daugaard. This is exactly the type of framework that our community is actively working to transform: we are not powerless.”
OR: “Daugaard isn’t simply presenting a difference in opinions or diversity of views. He legislated against disenfranchised groups. Groups that were already not in possession of political and economic power, and shoved them even further down into the pits. I mean, really, ever heard of the bully pulpit? We’re giving a pulpit to a bully.”
BS: Let me be clear here: we are not powerless. From the Deaf President Now (DPN) movement to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), we have proved, time and again, that the Deaf Community has the awesome capability to command social and political reform. It is simply that this power has been, and will continue to be, located in working with people of influence, including ‘bullies’ who do not lack pulpits.
From the Deaf President Now (DPN) movement to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), we have proved, time and time again, that the Deaf Community has the awesome capability to command social and political reform.
Take the ADA, for instance. President Reagan, considered by some well-respected commentators to be a bully for his racist imagery, which capitalized on the anger of white voters, introduced the first version of the ADA in April 1988. President H.W. Bush, who had been accused of sexism, signed the ADA into law. President Clinton, who signed the Defense of Marriage Act, vigorously enforced the ADA.
Another instance of working with unlikely allies is the DPN movement. I. King Jordan may not have been president if not for the support by labor unions that have been steadfastly opposed by the Republican Party, with which many deaf individuals are affiliated. The DPN movement was also aided by the support of Jesse Jackson, who famously said, “The problem is that not that the students do not hear… [but] that the hearing world does not listen.” He is also a man who once remarked that he was “sick and tired” of hearing about the Holocaust and has made anti-Semitic remarks several times.
ER: …Stern wrapped up his article by stating that “… the real challenge for the diverse members of the Deaf Community and the NAD is probably not to exclude people of influence but to work together in finding creative ways to engage them on a variety of issues, not in spite of but precisely because of their intolerant positions.” With this line, we see the most problematic aspect of the piece…
AA: “…there’s a sense of that separation between “we” (white, male, heterosexual as central) and “the diverse” (people of color, LGBT, women as those who are “different.”)…We often don’t see ourselves as diverse, too—rather, we’re the norm, everyone else is diverse (read: “different.”).”
OR: “…it does place “diverse folk” on the periphery…”
BS: When I referred to the diverse members of the Deaf Community, I was referring to everyone in the Deaf Community, not simply people of color, women, or LGBT. In fact, I recognize that the NAD, including its leadership, is not as diverse as it could be, which is why I wrote, “the diverse members of the Deaf Community,” and not of the NAD.
ER: “….I have had a tenuous relationship with NAD for this very reason—I have not seen any authentic action on NAD’s part for disenfranchised groups within our community, and like many other deaf People of Color, this continues the legacy of mistrust between us and NAD.”
BS: I have not had the best relationship with the NAD, but my experience probably pales in comparison to that of yours, Elena. The legacy of mistrust between members of disenfranchised groups within our community and NAD is real and unacceptable. I would like to add that reaching out and embracing diversity is not only the right thing to do, but also the helpful thing to do from a practical standpoint. A good metaphor would be to think of the NAD as a political party, which would make it more reasonable to view NAD membership as a choice and to craft its mission and membership around what is 'politically sustainable.' Party leaders understand that in order to win elections, they have to retain their current members and attract new members. They (supposedly) attempt to remain close to the political center in hopes of enticing new supporters.
As long as we view the NAD as a political party, it is morally and politically impotent for NAD leaders to be ideological purists on either side of the aisle, insisting on a specific vision, if it drives off the support of valuable members who could be rather easily brought into the community with authentic action.
ER: “I would go on to counter the idea of the university being a “neutral” space—universities, like most of the institutions we know and see in society, are determined by specific power structures. If we analyze how the university is structured, we see that it is a space steeped in the Western, male tradition—just as our political system is. Thus, there is no real “neutral” space, and I think it’s essential that we identify how any given space is still determined by those in power. A level playing field is more mythical than it is reality.”
ER: “Stern threw out that we could engage in a “free exchange of ideas” with Daugaard. “Free exchange of ideas” for whom? And how? And with that? A “free exchange of ideas” requires an even, level playing field—where the “players” can be equal contributors in order to ensure actual equity. Is such a thing even possible at the NAD conference?”
BS: I agree with Elena in that everything is political, neutrality is impossible, and a level playing field is more mythical than it is reality. We are ethnocentric beings steeped in power relations. This is to simply recognize how we are permanently culturally and politically situated, no matter how unbiased, apolitical, private, or disinterested we might think we are, or frame our actions to be. The central question here, however, is how to level the playing field to the best of our ability? I certainly do not have the answer, but it is somewhat un-American and depressing to say a level playing field is mythical then go on to say that a level playing field has to occur before a free exchange of ideas can happen. Is such a thing even possible? If so, can you tell me where the field you would like to meet is?
AA: “…In examining the above statement with a critical lens, several things are noted: First, the “majoritarian political system” is an illusion. Our current political system favors the few powerful, not the majority.”
BS: Alison, I agree somewhat, but we are probably confusing two different things here. If we look at the increasing wealth of the top 1% and decreasing economic mobility in the U.S., for instance, it is certainly fair to conclude that we currently have a political system that favors the few powerful.
However, it is still a ‘majoritarian’ political system, albeit one that favors the few powerful, because the fact of the matter is our local, state, and national representatives can only capture office with a majority of the votes, political representatives are beholden to follow the wishes of the majority of their constituents, and legislation is only passed with a legislative majority—or supermajority.
Therefore, talking and working with those with whom we agree on little is essential for political representation. That is precisely where our power lies. It is, in no way, an indictment of the Deaf Community because the American political system requires imaginative coalition building for all communities. This is how our Founding Fathers intended it to be. For instance, federalism, the constitutional principle of dividing power between local, state and national systems, forces representatives and constituencies from different segments of the U.S. to work together in coalitions to influence and shape desired reform. They are forced to coalesce diverse interests into blocs among disparate groups in different regions, with some chance for a local, state, or national majority—or risk obscurity.
Talking and working with those with whom we agree on little is essential for political representation. That is precisely where our power lies. It is, in no way, an indictment of the Deaf Community because the American political system requires imaginative coalition building for all communities. This is how our Founding Fathers intended it to be.
OR: “Alison, the word accommodation, historians have argued that accommodation was an ineffective model for advancing civil rights. I won’t bore anyone with historical details but various groups have tried that approach and history has shown the accommodation approach was ineffective. Yes, the more we pull this apart, the more we see privilege and lens become apparent. Speaking of which, Stern is suggesting that we copy the past, but as a historian I suggest we learn from history. We must evolve and cannot rely upon outdated models of activism.”
BS: Octavian, I am afraid we will have to agree to disagree on this point. While it is true that the strategy of accommodation has failed at times in breaking political, social, and economic dominance, it has also succeeded spectacularly in other instances. To say that accommodation was an ineffective strategic model to advance civil rights would be to call Marin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln, and Frederick Douglass—just to name a few—unsuccessful leaders.
American political and social leaders actually have a long history of successful accommodation politics to serve their ends. For instance, Douglass and Lincoln worked patiently with the electoral and economic motivations of political elites, including slave owners, before finally ending slavery. Another instance would be the year of 1968 when the Vietnam War was openly challenged, Martin Luther King Jr., John Lennon, and Robert Kennedy were all assassinated, violent riots racked major cities, race anxiety was prevalent, and the Black Panthers gained prominence. Despite those radical challenges, the strategic direction of minority and partisan leaders in that year was still toward accommodation politics.
Besides, what is the alternative to accommodation, if I may ask? Revolution and separation? That might work for some minority groups but will probably not succeed for a community that is .2% of the American population. To be clear, I am not endorsing submission. Instead, what I mean is to recognize how democratic societies require a certain extent of sacrifice, moderation, and patience. Put differently, my vote is for democratic participation and incremental reform, and I point to Martin Luther King Jr. for inspiration.
King combined the strategies of Booker T. Washington’s accommodation and W.E.B. DuBois’s confrontation to appeal to traditional American values such as participation, freedom, and economic opportunity. This combination attracted new, unlikely supporters and brought meaningful reform to the real lives of African-Americans. This is certainly where I agree with Octavian when he points to the importance of the NAD reframing its lens to create powerful coalitions with organizations with economic and political clout.
ER: …We need to stop approaching the deaf community as a monolithic community, wherein us being deaf ASL-users is all-encompassing, an automatic bond. When I see members of our own community tell us to stop tearing down NAD, to focus on the “real” issue at hand—hearing oppression of the deaf community—I am instantly brought back to Audre Lorde’s line “there is no hierarchy of oppressions.” We cannot let those who assert and maintain their dominance in our community preach to us what we should think/feel/do. NAD needs to take authentic action in stating that our community is indeed a diverse one that struggles with multiple systems of oppression, and that NAD, as a civil rights organization, should not and cannot be complicit with said systems of oppression.
BS: None of us could have said it better, Elena. The deaf community is in no way a monolithic community, and it also irks me when people expect deaf people to unify simply because they are deaf and ASL users. This is akin to telling Democrats and Republicans to move past their partisan disagreements because, after all, they are American and speak English.
To expect deaf people to unify simply because they are deaf and ASL users is akin to telling Democrats and Republicans to move past their partisan disagreements because, after all, they are American and speak English.
If the NAD and the Deaf Community expect to make inroads in making the NAD stronger and in building valuable coalitions, the emphasis in public conversation should be toward minimizing one difference at a time in each conversation. The goal should be to, as Richard Rorty put it, “sew such groups together with a thousand little stitches—to invoke a thousand little commonalities between their members, rather than specify one great big one, their common humanity,” or, in our case, our great big deaf experience.
It is our responsibility to challenge members of our community, including ourselves, about our self-images, vocabularies and the society and community to which we belong. No longer can we rely on the deaf man, the white man, or the straight man to provide valuable insight on ‘the deaf experience’ and to find commonalities and differences. We must look elsewhere. A helpful case study would be Henry Louis Gates, current director of the W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Research. He claims as long as there are 40 million African-Americans in the US, there are 40 million ways of being African-American. Is this also true for Deaf Americans? I think so. This is definitely worth exploring, not to glorify or denounce the deaf experience, but to remind our brothers and sisters that, while we share distinctive social, cultural and linguistic parameters, there are infinite ways to enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
The NAD would benefit from not only engaging with people like you three—Alison, Elena, Octavian —but also people like Gates inside and outside the community; from activists to bullies; from deaf advocates to audists; from Governor Daugaard to Governor O’Malley. If we engage with those individuals, we could find a thousand ways in which our dreams and frustrations as members of a minoritized people collide and rhyme with others.
ER: You mentioned that we are enabling a “bully,” Tavian—this takes us to the needed critique of who is really in charge of this conference. Stern threw out that we could engage in a “free exchange of ideas” with Daugaard. “Free exchange of ideas” for whom? And how?
OR: “The point of this discourse we’re trying to have with the NAD and with the larger Deaf Community–that this is joint work and we all share the burden in this effort toward creating an organization that is truly representative of the diversity of the deaf community.”
BS: As President Obama has said, if the United States stands for anything as a country, it is the rejection of “absolute truth, the infallibility of any idea of ideology or theology or ‘ism,’ any tyrannical consistency that might lock future generations into a single, unalterable course.” This pragmatic nature of the U.S. political system is largely the cause of the beauty and ugliness of our American democracy, which subscribes to the Madisonian principle that all opinions are “open to the force of argument” in the public square.
As Octavian said, and I am paraphrasing here, this is a burden that we all share in working for a more perfect community. Whether we are for or against abortion, for or against gay marriage, for or against cochlear implants, for or against bilingual education, for or against engaging Governor Daugaard, we are left with no choice but to test our beliefs in public, open to the force of argument, and to leave room for refinement and compromise.
Put differently, agreement is never guaranteed. Real and fundamental differences can be found in all parts of our daily lives, and as long as we live in a free society, the difficult struggle to reconcile disagreements of what is true, good and beautiful will go on forever. And this is why we must relentlessly pursue a free exchange of ideas, whether as a civil rights organization or a university.
Why, you may ask? What is it in for us? Why should we engage with people whose social and political positions contradict the NAD’s mission? Let us look inward first. For instance, the NAD and Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (AGB) offer almost incommensurable positions in respect to what they believe is genuinely in the best interests of deaf and hard-of-hearing children. If we prohibit Governor Daugaard from speaking at the NAD because his positions conflict with the NAD’s mission, then how can we expect AGB, with their mission of ensuring that “every child and adult with hearing loss has the opportunity to listen and talk,” to eventually invite deaf advocates, who believe in teaching ASL to deaf children, to speak at their conference?
If we prohibit Governor Daugaard from speaking at the NAD because his positions conflict with the NAD's mission, then how can we expect AGB, with their mission of ensuring that "every child and adult with hearing loss has the opportunity to listen and talk," to eventually invite deaf advocates, who believe in teaching ASL to deaf children, to speak at their conference?
For me, to engage with people like Governor Daugaard would be to embrace what Obama calls the audacity of hope: “Hope in the face of difficulty. Hope in the face of uncertainty.” Hope would be to acknowledge the difficult and uncertain nature of coalition building with the politicians, scholars, activists, leaders, artists, school administrators, business owners, and lawyers of our national community—but to engage, nonetheless.
Is political engagement an easy task? Certainly not. It takes audacity to work with people of influence with whom we do not agree. However, is it a necessary task? Absolutely, as long as we wish to promote, protect, and preserve the interests and rights of deaf and hard of hearing Americans.
ABOUT BRENDAN STERN
Brendan Stern is a PhD candidate in American Politics at the Catholic University of America currently working on his dissertation proposal.