So, here’s the thing. We divide the world into halves. We are on the one side of the half, the half that gets all the resources, recognition, power, technology and knowledge, and the other half has what? Not very much that we need to pay any attention to except stuff we can use for ourselves. Therefore, there is an abyss, a huge chasm between us and them. Sounds like colonization because we will happily take the resources belonging to those on the other side of the abyssal line (de Sousa Santos, 2007).
So de-colonization movements are primarily about returning what rightfully belongs to those living on the other side of the abyss. That might include apologies, settling land claims, conducting environmental studies in order to do no further harm and sharing resources, acknowledging alternative languages, cultures and values and providing equitable opportunities. But after all that is said and done, we are still living on the other half of the abyssal line, the half that is more profitable, comfortable, and “real” to us. And we encourage those who are on the other side of the line to become like us because we can’t fathom any other way to live.
The abyssal line is used to describe the economic, social, cultural, political and linguistic divisions between the Global North and the Global South (de Sousa Santos, 2007). But I think the concept applies very well to relationships between deaf and hearing people. I think of Bob Hoffmeister’s anguished confession that as a CODA, there are things he can’t tell anyone, deaf nor hearing. As an ODA (oral deaf adult) transplant into the Deaf community, there are things I can’t tell anyone either. Worse yet, like Bob, I am on the side of the line that is privileged in every way despite that fact that I am profoundly deaf and for the most part, I need sign language to function. Just being on that side of the line because of my upbringing, my reasonably good speech skills, my education, middle class background and living in North America, means that my thinking associated with the abyssal line is default thinking. What this means for me is that when I am confronted with a Deaf person who needs sign language to learn and to communicate and who might not meet my expectations or exhibit normative behaviours associated with hearing or Deaf communities, the default thinking which is characterized as the deficit perspective automatically kicks in. I am often stunned at how quickly this happens within me. My abyssal thinking is characterized by swift interventions, patronizing talk/sign, over direction, and a virtual taking over of the space occupied by Deaf people. I assume I know what they are thinking, what they are signing, what they are feeling, and what their wants and needs are. It is such an automatic default position.
But I am beginning to understand that this abyssal line has imposed upon me a silence, unlike those *SCALDed deaf children, articulate and well educated Deaf adults, and CODAs. The silence is about being on neither side of the abyssal line but always positioning myself on the side of the beautiful winners anyway. Because there is nothing worth paying attention to the other side of the line even if we call them, in a magnanimous fit, “beautiful losers”. In fact, NOTHING exists on the other side of the line. So that is why so many hearing people said after viewing Deaf Crows, “I had no idea, simply no idea what is going on with those deaf kids.”
Moreover, how can I begin to talk about the things that I could never talk about as a person suspended between abyssal divide between the hearing and deaf worlds, never belonging entirely to either world. I know there is stuff that exists on the Deaf side of the line but not fully and until I renounce my position from the hearing side of the abyssal line, I never will be able to look at it, write about it, and even see it fully for what it is. Abyssal thinking is too entrenched in my head.
It’s embarrassing. And it’s traumatic to see this abyssal thinking within myself, who has been a dedicated activist, educator and researcher within the Deaf community. My foundations are shaken. How can I be effective when I resort to default thinking, that is to abyssal thinking to interpret anything that goes on between me and a d/Deaf person? It’s particularly revealing that I have been an ardent advocate for the language and literacy education of d/DHH children and youth but I have never deeply delved into what is in the hearts and minds of those who are on the “Other” side of the abyssal line.
To be fair, like many CODAS who struggle with loyalty to their Deaf parents and the Deaf communities in which they grew up, and the demands of the hearing world in which they can uneasily participate, I am a ODA (oral deaf adult) in search of story of my own, one that is untainted by abyssal thinking. What is that story? I don’t know yet.
Hmm, the abyssal line. I think I’ve painted this before: A headless spine. The spine that becomes the abyssal line. Bad poetry eh.
de Sousa Santos (2007) suggests that a decentering cognitive shift is required to see what is exactly on the other side of the abyssal line. I literally need a new head! I need to get one on there pretty fast! Then I can see what is on the other side of the abyssal line. I’m grateful to the Deaf community, to my hearing friends, the University of Regina academic community and to my husband Murray for challenging me when I switch to abyssal thinking. It takes a whole village to decenter Joanne Weber. Indeed.