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.
Let me say, first of all, that I believe gay marriage is a civil right; the NAD has an obligation to support all civil rights; and Daugaard is, in all likelihood, based on his voting record, homophobic, Islamophobic, and misogynistic, all of which should have no place in the United States where we hold the truths that women and men are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights to be self-evident.
I agree with Octavian Robinson’s powerful article that Governor Daugaard is a bigot for his efforts to codify discrimination into law. And I commend Octavian and his colleagues for their invaluable work in calling for more inclusion in the Deaf Community and the NAD, questioning the wisdom of inviting Daugaard to speak in Louisville, and reminding us to be conscious and sensitive about the privileges that we represent. Where we differ, however, is our proposed remedy.
The question we should ask ourselves here is not whether Daugaard supports gay rights, abortion rights, religious freedom, or even deaf rights. Instead, it is whether by disinviting and excluding him from the convention, we will advance the rights of deaf and hard of hearing Americans to marry anyone they love, to worship freely, to choose whether or not to have an abortion, and to be reasonably accommodated in public places.
Put differently, how can the NAD most effectively pursue its mission of promoting, protecting, and preserving the freedoms and rights of all deaf and hard of hearing Americans? For me, a considerable step toward fulfilling this complex assignment would be to reach out to political activists and representatives currently in power, including those with whom we agree on very little.
In this regard, a helpful case study would be the recent controversy that has hit Georgetown University about its invitation of Kathleen Sebelius, the Health and Human Services Secretary who is pro-choice, to speak at an awards ceremony. In response to the outrage expressed by leading Catholics, the Georgetown President, John J. DeGioia, said that although Georgetown distances itself from positions that conflict with the traditional teachings of the Catholic Church – e.g. abortion rights - it is also an university committed to “the free exchange of ideas,” and by engaging with people with whom the university disagrees, Georgetown becomes the University it is meant to be.
Likewise, the NAD should not only commit itself to the free exchange of ideas for the sake of achieving this democratic ideal, but also because it does not have a choice from a practical standpoint. As a civil rights organization representing a low-power, low-incidence group in the U.S. political system, the NAD inevitably has to engage with people, groups, and ideas that run counter to our values and beliefs if it wishes to have political and social clout. In a democratic political system where a simple majority (and often, a super majority) is required for sociopolitical reform, members of the Deaf Community and the NAD can ill-afford to be ideologues - even if, and especially when, we are right.
As a civil rights organization representing a low-power, low-incidence group in the U.S. political system, the NAD inevitably has to engage with people, groups, and ideas that run counter to our values and beliefs if it wishes to have political and social clout.
After all, a historical examination of successful minority reforms in the U.S. will show that liberalizing reforms come most often when coalitions with unlikely leaders and groups result in overwhelming pressure for change. For instance, the key events that led to the end to formal segregation and the women’s right to vote were more the result of coalition building with racists and sexists than ideological congruence. From Martin Luther King Jr. to Susan Anthony, they built imaginative coalitions with people with whom they disagreed vehemently, not because of moral indifference but out of political necessity. Even President Obama’s recent declaration of support for gay marriage was the gradual culmination of years of relentless dialogue by liberal activists with social conservatives that (finally) turned the majority of public opinion in the rightful direction of marriage equality.
From Martin Luther King, Jr. to Susan Anthony, they built imaginative coalitions with people with whom they disagreed vehemently, not because of moral indifference but out of political necessity.
For the NAD to support and expand civil rights for all deaf and hard of hearing individuals, it has to recognize the U.S.’s majoritarian political system and, in turn, embrace the necessity of imaginative coalition building in which blatant forms of inequality are eradicated through collaboration and accommodation. To be clear, this is a profound challenge that is rife with moral dilemmas and practical difficulties. Yet, it is also an effective strategy for a more perfect union that minority leaders and organizations have embraced to great success. They understood, quite paradoxically, that the best way to stand up for black, women, and gay rights in a democratic society was to engage with those who had yet to support racial, gender, and marriage equality.
[Successful minority leaders] understood, quite paradoxically, that the best way to stand up for black, women, and gay rights in a democratic society was to engage with those who had yet to support racial, gender, and marriage equality.
Similarly, I want to believe that Governor Daugaard’s presence at the NAD convention will not be so much a tacit endorsement of his wrongheaded political views as it will be an affirmation of the NAD’s judicious strategy to promote and protect the rights of deaf and hard of hearing Americans. It is incredibly rare that a high-ranking public executive such as Daugaard has real connections to the Deaf Community and is willing to speak at the NAD convention. It would be, indeed, prudent for the NAD and its affiliated members to maximize this unique opportunity by working with him on addressing challenges unique to the community.
In other words, 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.
ABOUT BRENDAN STERN
Brendan Stern is a PhD candidate in American Politics at the Catholic University of America currently working on his dissertation proposal.