Which Is More Isolating: Blindness or Deafness?

Praise God if you can see and hear. Both are miraculous gifts. But if you could only see or hear, which would you choose? It’s the basis of a classroom experiment by W. J. T. Mitchell, English and Art History prof at the University of Chicago. I heard him explain it in a 2006 interview.

A thought experiment I use with my students is asking them: “If you have a choice, you can either be blind or rendered deaf — lose your ears or your eyes — which do you choose?” And then I say, “Don’t think about it, just vote.” Always, 90% vote to be deaf, rather than blind, because they think [sight] is so important.

Then I introduce a discussion to see if the vote changes, and in the course of the discussion they learn quickly, after a moment’s reflection, that the loss of sight is much less a problem than loss of hearing. A loss of hearing means we couldn’t do what we’re doing [a recorded conversation in a studio]. We could be doing this on the telephone. All of our sociability depends on the oral channel. And even though we have this inflated idea about eyesight, actually in terms of our being, as social animals, it’s relatively secondary. Yet we make it into something really important.

At the end of our discussion of course there’s a few holdouts who say, “I still can’t bear the thought of living in darkness.” But they begin to realize that deafness is a much bigger handicap, and of course that leads on to discussions like why are all of the greatest poets blind, not deaf? And why is blindness associated with the insight of “the blind seer”?

There’s no question our lives today are ocularcentric, and we over-prioritize the eyes because we live in a glittered age fully invested in the impulsive power of images to grab our eyes. This is Mitchell’s point, and it opens a vast field of exploration for Christians whose gospel priorities explicitly stress the ear over the eye (Rom 10:14; 2 Cor 5:7).

But this point was also recorded in 2006, prior to the advent of the iPhone and prior to social media as we now know it. In the 12 years since, I’m left to wonder if our new relational structures, heavily patterned after visual/typed realtime conversations of the digital world, now fundamentally tilt this equation? Or is this factor x-ed out by dictation tech?

What do you think?

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