Here are two headlines from the New York Times in the past two months:
“Kids Can’t Learn Who Can’t See” (May 15, 2015, an opinion piece promoting early vision care)
“Blind to a Child’s Obesity” (June 16, 2015, about parents who deny their child is obese)
The first headline makes a literal claim that to be blind is to be unable to learn; the second uses “blind” as a metaphor for willful ignorance.
It is easy to attack a literal statement when it is palpably false. I addressed a short letter to the editor about the “Can’t Learn” headline. It wasn’t published, but here’s what I wrote: How about all the blind students who have gone on to college and graduate programs and pursued rewarding careers? No question, correctible vision problems should be treated early, but the message should not be that blind kids are doomed to failure. Good eyesight is undeniably important, but it is only one factor in learning.
I didn’t write to the Times about the childhood obesity headline. Undoubtedly, they would have pointed out they meant “blind” strictly in the metaphorical sense. But I thought of it on June 26, the day the Supreme Court declared same-sex marriage a constitutional right and that President Obama delivered his moving eulogy for the victims of the assault at the Emanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina.
The gay rights case reminds us that attitudes toward a once despised group can change in the course of a generation. How? Through positive media coverage and diligent lawsuits, yes, but largely because of the courage that LGBT people displayed in going public, thus revealing that they are among the nice people who live next door. It’s harder to think in stereotypes when you like your neighbors.
Relatively few people live or work side-by-side with physically disabled people, a situation that is changing only slowly. Thus narratives about disabled people tend to be abstract, and frequently inspirational. Disabled people are still mostly denied recognition for just how complex they are and how different they are from each other. But if you have blind friends and neighbors, you might think twice before saying someone is “blind” to childhood obesity. That’s what I thought as the gay marriage decision was announced.
Later that day, as President Obama spoke in Charleston, I thought how, after decades of disputing the harm that has been done in the name of the Confederate flag, many conservative Southern politicians suddenly got it. It’s distressing that the catalyst had to be a grotesque crime, but the sudden shift showed that people are capable of seeing the harm that a symbol —a metaphor—can do.
Then, in his eulogy, President Obama spoke the words from “Amazing Grace”: “Was blind, but now I see.” At its literal level, this phrase says that to be blind is bad not just physically, but also morally. It says blind people lack self-knowledge, and even that they are willfully ignorant.
I suspect President Obama would be the first to say, and mean, that he believes in the capabilities of blind people. Indeed, blind people are often told they “see” in a spiritual sense better than sighted people, as if to turn the metaphor on its head. But such well-intentioned assurances separate blind people from the rest of society. True, there are religious-minded blind people who no doubt have spiritual insights, but most are likely to be preoccupied with school, jobs and families.
But I notice my word “insights” in that paragraph: a common word that is also a metaphor. We can hardly open our mouths, or type at the keyboard, without using metaphors.
President Obama’s eulogy was powerful. “Was blind, but now I see” resonates alongside “We shall overcome” and “I have a dream.” I wouldn’t deny any of these phrases to the millions of people who made them vibrate across the nation.
The simple conclusion is, don’t make false statements. The subtler one is, when we use metaphorical words and phrases, let’s notice their literal meaning. Over time, we can hope the damaging ones leave the language. I don’t mean we should purge them: no official bans, never mind new laws making their utterance a criminal offense. But as more and more disabled people become our neighbors and the language continues its perpetual evolution, maybe blindness will cease to be linked with stupidity and ignorance.
Note. The Times has since changed the online headline, “Blind to a Child’s Obesity,” to “Parents’ Denial Fuels Childhood Obesity Epidemic.” While acknowledging online the original headline, no reason for the change is given. The other headline, “Kids Can’t Learn Who Can’t See,” has been retained.
© Copyright 2015 by Adrian Spratt