Monday, June 18, 2007

לא תקלל חרש ולפני עור, לא תתן מכשל

Last semester, I took a course in Cultural Diversity as it relates to psychological and clinical practice. It was enlightening, though remarkably biased. You see, the instructor is black and virtually all the case studies presented were of black people who had achieved great success despite backgrounds of poverty, abuse, neglect, and/or discrimination. These were all great and inspirational stories, but the curriculum seems to have gotten swept up in the mistaken notion that diversity=minority. (If you think this is racist, get an education, see the world, and have a neurologist check out that knee-jerk.)

Anyway, we had a guest speaker one day, a hearing psychologist who had worked for many years in the deaf community. The presentation was fascinating and enlightening, but I learned one thing that greatly disturbed me.

Because they cannot hear, deaf people often miss out on a lot of background information. Think about it; how much useful information do you collect every day by overhearing (not eavesdropping)? Because of this information deficit that leaves them out of the loop, deaf culture tries to glean the information directly and places a great value on information. The consequence of that is that deaf people are very self-disclosing and will ask very personal, intimate, and private questions (e.g., "How much do you make?" "Were you always overweight?" and the like). When communicating with a deaf person, it is considered an affront to deny them information; it says you don't trust them.

The guest speaker related a conversation she had with a supervisor about how to respond to these probing inquiries if disclosing the information made her uncomfortable. Her supervisor told her that there is a practice that has arisen among interlocutors of the deaf. The solution is to simply lie. That way you're not disclosing and not insulting.

Personally, I find that even more insulting and disrespectful. I learned growing up and in my professional, clinical development that the way to demonstrate your respect for someone (and indeed, to actually respect them) is to be honest with them. Sometimes the truth is scary, painful, or inconvenient. You don't have to deliver it with a sledgehammer, but you don't sugarcoat it, beat around the bush, or lie about it. The truth with compassion is the ideal.

This earth is blessed with myriad overlapping cultures. It is inevitable that many of them will clash. The mature, productive reaction should be to address the clash and reconcile differences; it doesn't mean everyone will walk away happy, but they should feel respected. Shirking away from this responsibility by misleading or misinforming the deaf, in this case, is a twisted, selfish, and cowardly response to personal discomfort.

Now that I've expressed my criticism, what solution do I have, what would I do? I would consider the nature of the question asked of me. I may find that though I am unaccustomed to disclosing the requested information, I may not really take that much issue with it and wouldn't really mind that much answering the question.

If I truly don't want to reveal the information, I would tell the deaf person that I understand their culture's value of self-disclosure and that while they are not lacking for my trust, my cultural background makes me uncomfortable answering the question. If the deaf person is sufficiently mature and culturally responsible, he or she would endeavor to understand or at least respect my culture (which Randy Cohen failed to do) while accepting that I am not being insulting.

This may not occur, and the deaf person may adopt a view that hearing/male/Jewish/etc. people are culturally obtuse and offensive. That would be sad, but at least I would have met my responsibilities.

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