"Sound and Fury" over enhancements

From: hal@finney.org
Date: Tue Jan 08 2002 - 13:02:31 MST

PBS tonight (here in LA, see local listings) is showing an Oscar nominated
documentary, Sound and Fury, about the controversy in the deaf community
over cochlear implants for deaf children, which can restore hearing.
See http://www.pbs.org/wnet/soundandfury/.

It seems almost unbelievable that what is in many ways a cure for deafness
could be controversial. One would think that parents would want the
best for their children. Choosing to keep a child deaf rather than to
let them grow up with hearing ability seems to border on child abuse.

Yet among the deaf community the issue is highly troublesome. The main
issue is that the deaf see themselves as a separate group with a separate
culture, almost like an ethnic or religious group. They have their own
language (ASL) and their own customs, and face common challenges. Deaf
people often marry other deaf people. They are bound tightly together.

But all this is defined by their handicap. Giving a child hearing means
that they will no longer be part of their community. They may learn
ASL but they won't really need it to survive. They won't face the
same challenges and problems. They will not be part of the culture.
For the deaf parents faced with the question of getting their child a
cochlear implant, they face the loss of their child from their culture.

It is possible that this may be a precursor to some of the biological
enhancements which will become possible in future decades. If you are
human, would you take steps to make your child transhuman, if it meant
that you would lose the child from your culture? Suppose you could
give him some kind of ESP implant and allow them to join in a communal
consciousness, for example? He might abandon the use of speech, and
begin to act in ways which you could never hope to emulate, sharing
perceptions from other enhanced individuals.

This show, Sound and Fury, focuses on two families, headed by brothers
Peter, who is deaf, and Chris, who is hearing. Peter's wife and children
are deaf; Chris's wife is deaf and his son Peter (named after his uncle)
is also deaf. Now Heather, Peter's 7 year old daugher, wants a cochlear
implant so she can hear, but her father is opposed. Meanwhile Peter's
brother Chris decides to get a cochlear implant for his deaf son.

This tears the two brothers apart. One cousin will be given hearing,
the other will not. Apparently the heart of the show is a heart-rending,
dramatic ten-minute debate among the family about the propriety of giving
or witholding the gift of hearing to the deaf children. In the end,
young Peter is given his implant, and there is a moment of drama as it
is turned on. The implants don't always work, and some children are
upset or disturbed by the new sensation. We get to see as this child,
deaf from birth, hears for the first time.


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