John Leo
"Sound and Fury" is an Oscar-nominated documentary on the controversy over cochlear implants, the technology that allows deaf people to hear. Why is there a dispute? Because many deaf people now view themselves as an identity group under assault from the hearing world.

Cochlear implants, which work best with children, are viewed as an example of intolerance and aggression that remove deaf children from their culture, just as missionaries once took Indian children from their tribes and put them in Christian boarding schools. In "Sound and Fury," a deaf Long Island couple refuse to let their 5-year-old daughter get a cochlear implant. The father has a lament: "If the technology progresses, maybe it's true that deaf people will become extinct, and my heart will be broken."

This is a poignant moment. The parents know that if they approve the implant, they will lose their daughter to a wider world they can never enter (and don't want to enter). The daughter would go to a hearing school and have hearing friends, to the probable exclusion of her family. But the plain fact is that the parents are preventing a cure for deafness for ideological reasons. An upside-down logic is at work here: helping a girl to hear is an attack on her and her culture, as many voices in the film keep insisting.

As columnist Cathy Young writes in Reason magazine, this is an example of how "the celebration of difference and pluralism has brought modern western culture to the brink of lunacy." In the movie, the father talks of how "peaceful" it is to live in a world of total silence. This defense mechanism, Young says, is shockingly treated as a serious argument these days, particularly among the intellectual elites. Once deaf people are defined as a cultural group, not inferior to hearing culture, then any move by hearing people to correct deafness is illegitimate. This follows from the belief, now widely held in the academic world, that all cultures and all arguments are equal.

In his book "The Mask of Benevolence," Northeastern University psychologist Harlan Lane lays out the argument that American deaf people have been oppressed and "colonized" like Third World countries taken over by European powers. There is a great deal of talk about "the medicalization of cultural deafness" and the blundering "audist establishment" (the hearers). This kind of thinking earned him a MacArthur Foundation "genius" award, proving once again that if you wish to become a MacArthur version of a genius, bizarre multicultural ideas can be quite helpful.

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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