Do you think I’m Stupid?
John M Hull
Echoes: Justice, Peace and Creation News [World Council of Churches], no.19, pp.11-13
In order to discover the image of blindness in my own culture I have gathered more than 750 cases of the use of the word ‘blind’ from the pages of one of the leading British daily newspapers. I chose the Guardian because it is a high quality newspaper with a particular interest in education and social justice.
The references fell into two categories. The first of these consisted of references to literal blindness, and most of them were of this kind.
Here are some examples of references to literal blindness. ‘..he had been blind since birth.’ ‘…some totally blind people can tell the difference.’ ‘…changes in treatment of the blind.’ ‘…protecting the interests of blind people.’ ‘… a school for the blind in Sheffield.’ ‘…the Royal National Institute for the Blind.’
These are perfectly straightforward, factual references and are of no particular interest. I only mention them in order to contrast them clearly with the second group. This contains the rest of the collection, rather less than half, and consists of metaphorical references. I should mention at this point that the examples were collected by the computer and are a complete set of all the references to the word which the computer found in the Guardian at the time.
The remarkable thing about the references to metaphorical blindness is that they are almost all negative.
The most common metaphorical use of the word blind is to refer to ignorance. ‘…blind date’, when you do not know whom you will be meeting. ‘…We tasted blind, with no further seasoning’, which means that we did not know what we were tasting. ‘…Mr. A must have been blind and deaf not to have known about’, where one is ignorant of the facts. ‘…who closes his eyes to the past is blind to the present’, which means he does not know about the present.
Sometimes the reference is to stubborn ignorance, deliberately persisting in not knowing. ‘…brightly intelligent and stubbornly blind to the notion that the world might…’. Sometimes reference is made to careless ignorance: ‘…Nor should they be blind to the fact that…’. ‘…But my well-founded optimism doesn’t blind me to potential problems’. In English, as in many languages, to see is to know, and sometimes ignorance is referred to as being the opposite of metaphorical seeing: ‘…One would have to be blind not to see that Nato…’.
Blindness as Indifference
To emphasise the alleged ignorance of blind people is bad enough, but more disturbing are the many occasions when blindness is used as a metaphor for shear indifference. They ‘…judged its (the government’s) policy to be blind to conservation…’. ‘…you always felt he wasn’t taking a blind bit of notice of what you were…’. ‘…the minister appears blind to the powerful morality which…’.
Stronger expressions suggest that the indifference is wilful and even culpable. He had ‘a ferocious kind of tunnel vision, blind to everything but impending Fame.’ He was ‘upbraiding the greed, waste and blind short-termism of the Government.’
A common cliché which expresses the concept of deliberate indifference has its origin in the famous story about the English naval hero Lord Nelson, who was blind in one eye. When his more cautious superior officer commanded the fleet not to attack the enemy, Nelson is said to have put the telescope to his blind eye, remarked that he could not see any orders and attacked successfully. So we have ‘Whitehall turned a blind eye for more than a year to plans…’ and the ‘internal affairs bureau had turned a blind eye to rampant perjury and evidence…’.
Blindness as Insensitivity
Because blind people are often unable to respond quickly to passing events or the emotions on the faces of people, the public regards us as being insensitive. ‘You would need to be deaf, dumb and blind not to be disturbed by it.’ The government department was accused of ‘a blind and insensitive form of planning.’
Blindness as Uncritical
It is assumed that blind people lack knowledge and are insensitive to detail. We are often regarded as lacking in critical intelligence. The most frequent example is the cliché ‘blind faith.’ So people speak of the ‘blind faith placed in the chairman’ and ‘the problem with politicians who have a blind faith in their own visions.’
In the same vein, a fanatical movement might ‘return us to the k comforts and blind loyalties of organised religion’ and on the other hand, one might be uncritical in one’s admiration for something: ‘exposing his blind appreciation of the very case.’
Blindness as Undiscriminating
Because it is thought that blind people are unable to select or to plan for the future, blindness becomes a suitable metaphor for nature as a whole or for the forces of destiny and chance. There are many references in our collection to blind fortune, blind destiny, and blind fate. Nature, or the God of nature, is described as a blind watchmaker. Another similar cliché is ‘blind rage’, which means that the angry person no longer discriminates between various objects of his fury.
The most negative imagery about blindness suggests that blind people are violent. So ‘the management swears blind that it has no big deals’ and the ‘reaction which makes someone blind with rage is a me behaviour.’ Moreover, he ‘went charging in blind, fists up.’ Sometimes the metaphor of blindness suggests a complete collapse of self-control: I was ‘in a blind sweaty panic clutching my brow’ and sometimes ‘blind’ becomes a mere term of abuse, presumably because it is a one syllable word commencing with ‘b’. He ‘had the blind blithering arrogance to try.’
Not all the metaphorical uses of blindness are negative. Our sources also speak of love as being blind, which means that love is deep and enduring, unaffected by superficial changes. We also speak of justice as being blind, which means that justice is strictly rational, paying attention only to the evidence and not distracted by appearances. However, these positive examples are the exception rather than the rule. There is no doubt the English language is riddled with expressions which indicate a negative attitude towards blindness. The fact that many of these are in the form of clichés illustrates the deeply ingrained character of these assumptions.
The extraordinary thing is that although as our culture has matured we have learned not to use the weaknesses and ills of our fellow human beings as terms of abuse, we seem not to have learned this lesson with respect to blindness. We teach our children not to speak of people with learning problems as ‘idiots’ and we no longer refer to psychiatric hospitals as ‘nut houses’ or ‘luny bins’. Yet I hear my highly cultivated medical colleagues speak of conducting a blind trail, and my sophisticated education colleagues as blind marking. In both of these cases, all that is meant is that the experimenter does not know which group has received the new drug or which student has presented the essay. Why continually emphasise the ignorance of blind people?
The negative imagery of blindness in the English language means that everyone growing up in an English language culture unconsciously absorbs these attitudes. It is this which accounts for much of the patronising and condescending attitudes which are often displayed toward blind people. Moreover, when a sighted person goes blind, he or she internalises the unconscious attitudes, which have hitherto been extended toward blind people. The result is that the newly blinded person suffers a loss of self-esteem and of public esteem, which makes the loss of sight itself more shocking.
What is to be Done?
All those who use the English language, particularly authors, preachers, journalists and broadcasters must become more conscious of the long shadows of injustice and oppression which are cast upon us by our linguistic heritage. Whether the source of this injustice be a patriarchal bias, or a racist prejudice, or an unconscious fear of disability, we must all try to renew, not only the face of the earth, but the face of our language. Unfortunately, the biblical and Christian tradition, far from offering us much help, tends actually to encourage and to authorise negative attitudes to disability. That, however, is another story.