Let’s talk about labels, shall we? You know, those quaint little terms people give to one another to justify demonization and dehumanization? Yeah, those things. Whether it’s third-grade bullies on the playground harassing the kid who’s a little different, or the former leader of the free world calling immigrants “drug dealers, criminals and rapists” in order to justify kidnapping children and placing them in cages, all of it really comes from the same dark place.
Humans have a disturbing capacity to attack those who are different. “Otherism” serves this purpose well and has been used to justify the most heinous acts in human history. It’s a power-trip, one-upmanship to the extreme. You want to control an individual or a group of people? Stick a label on them, preferably an unsavory one that dehumanizes them, and suddenly you have the power to destroy them because they are outsiders, interlopers, outcasts, others.
Religion and politics have a rich history of otherism and persecution of those who don’t belong to their specific ideologies. It’s been said that more people have died in the name of some god or other than for any other reason in history. Whether this is accurate or not is beside the point; a look around the world throughout mankind’s infestation of this planet shows that history is rife with persecution, torture and murder of those who don’t adhere to a particular religious system, no matter what system it may be. As for politics, we need only look at our own two-party system here in the U.S., where the party which is hell-bent on destroying democracy considers the other party a cabal of satan-worshipping, cannibalistic pedophiles and uses this dangerous and ridiculous cult conspiracy theory to justify its attempts to overturn our elections and overthrow our government, not to mention its constant dehumanization and labeling of marginalized groups such as immigrants, LGBTQ+, people of color, the elderly, disabled and poor and anyone else who is “different.” Again, a glance at history will show atrocities committed against others as a central thread of human evolution.
What does this have to do with a deaf blog, you may ask? A lot, actually (and thanks for asking).
I’ve been labeled for various reasons throughout my life. I was born and raised in a particular western U.S. state notorious for being dominated by one particular religious system. I don’t belong to that particular religious system, so there was plenty of discrimination during my school years. It was made clear to me early on that I was an outcast, a pariah, and would forever be an outsider unless I became “one of them” and ceased to be “one of the others.” Academically, athletically and socially, there was discrimination. I even had a “pet bully” who delighted in terrorizing me for years for no apparent reason. I was simply “the non-mormon kid.” I was also “the out-of-town farm kid,” which further disqualified me from any semblance of equality and inclusion in that tight little wad of happy humanity at school. My home life wasn’t much better– I was simply invisible.
Labels are sticky things, hard to peel off once applied, and when you find yourself covered in them, sometimes you begin to believe them. You become overly sensitive to them, and yet desensitized to them at the same time—a strange paradox. Some labels contain a kernel of truth but are applied in such a way as to exaggerate that truth into something monstrous. This is especially painful with regards to physical traits and can haunt these victims for life. Some may be a nod to some personality trait or other quirk and may seem humorous to some. I was “the brain” in school due to my academic efforts (trying to fit in, an exercise in futility). At home I was “the disrespectful kid” for standing up to my abusive father. At various other times I held other odd titles, some of which were sort of funny and others which weren’t funny at all.
Many years ago, I had a part-time job cleaning toilets and mopping floors (there are not a lot of options in rural areas for deaf people). I was known as “the janitor guy.” Of all the people who worked there, only one person ever took the time to learn my name. Otherwise, it was “Hey, Janitor Guy! Come clean up this mess!” The thing with labels is they’re lazy. It takes zero effort to make up some cute little moniker for someone in order to lop that person into some anonymous group of others, but it takes effort to see that person as a unique human being. To everyone in that store (except Arnie—thanks, man), I was just “the janitor guy,” a sub-species of Earth organism not worthy of attention or inclusion. Sure, I cleaned toilets, but that didn’t define me as a person. It was only something I did for awhile and had no bearing on my humanity and my place in the cosmos.
And now I’m “the deaf guy.”
Again, there’s a kernel of truth here (heck, there’s an entire cob’s worth of kernels), but this label bothers me on a particularly deep level. You see, I don’t want to be deaf. Deafness has taken too much away from me for me to harbor any warm, fuzzy feelings about it. It’s not a cute label (like being “the Star Wars fanatic” as a teen), and it’s certainly not something I cherish (unlike “brother” or “friend” or “uncle”). This label just cuts too deeply and has produced too many scars.
Whenever I interact with anyone, the first thing I must explain is that I’m deaf. This immediately creates the scenario of “Hearing Person and Deaf Guy: A Study in Frustration, Confusion and Humiliation.” Right off the bat, I’ve become the deaf guy, and this is how everyone who interacts with me remembers me. It’s inescapable and there’s no way around it and it forces me into that group of nameless others who reside along the periphery of normal human experience.
Man: “Honey, guess what I saw in the store today? A deaf guy!”
Woman: “A deaf guy? Oh! Was he deaf?”
Woman: “Was he confused?”
Woman: “Was he embarrassed?”
Man: “Yes. He was deaf, after all!”
(cue canned laughter and sitcom music as scene fades to commercial)
Obviously, I joke about this stuff (if I didn’t have a sense of humor, I don’t know how I could ever possibly cope with deafness or depression or anything else) but it’s to prove a point: the hearing and the deaf live in completely different worlds. For someone such as myself, who experienced late-onset adult deafness due to meningitis as a teen, I’m not only “the deaf guy,” I’m also a member of the sub-group of others called “the in-betweeners.” I’m too deaf to fit into the hearing world, but not deaf enough to fit into the Deaf world.
I have severe hearing loss in both ears. I lip-read but it’s all guesswork and I miss a lot of words to the point where I must rely on people writing or typing what they say in order to understand. I can still hear some sounds. I don’t know sign language, and even if I did, I don’t know anyone who’s deaf or hard-of-hearing or who knows ASL. So, yeah, I’m one of the “too something but not something enough” subgroup of others. I remember my normal hearing days and miss them. I know a little about Deaf culture (something I’ll write about soon) and there is virtually nothing in my rural area in terms of deaf support services or groups. I view my deafness as a disability, something that runs counter to the view of many Deaf folks. Perhaps if I’d been born deaf or lost my hearing as a young child, I’d be more inclined to embrace it as an identity rather than a disability. As it stands now, deafness has robbed me of my life’s dream of becoming a musician; it has resulted in isolation and the inability to relate to other people; it has damaged my sense of self and has resulted in a lot of pain and loneliness. I can’t view that as a good thing no matter how hard I try.
Alas, I have to accept it at some point. It’s the only way to achieving peace within myself. I don’t want to be the deaf guy forever. I want to be Mike, a guy who has value as a human being, who just happens to be deaf. No more labels. Just truth.