Braille Monitor                         March 2021

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Seeing is Believing, or is it?

by Gary Wunder

Gary WunderHow many times have we heard statements such as these: “I’ll believe it when I see it,” “You’ve got to see it to believe it,” or "It's true; I've seen this with my own eyes.” In the state where I live, our motto is "Show me,” and although this may mean you can persuade me verbally, mostly it means people want to see the proof.

In last month’s issue, I tried to generate some discussion about what people get through sight that we must gain through input from others and a mindset that is open to active learning. For people with vision, learning can be more passive and less intentional. More frequently than we would like, we see reports that 80 to 90 percent of all learning takes place through vision, followed too often by the implication that the absence of vision means this learning won’t take place for the blind.

About two weeks ago, I saw an advertisement for a podcast called “Talk Description to Me.” The press release announcing an award they have won and how to subscribe appears elsewhere in this issue. Before deciding whether or not to run the release, I thought I should listen to a couple of podcasts. It turns out that what was being described was the events of January 6 at the United States Capitol. Not only did I hear about some of the more violent encounters, but I now have a better understanding of what it means to take an aggressive posture.

At one point in the podcast, the sighted describer explains to his blind cohost that he can’t really tell her what is happening but can only tell her what he sees. He goes on to say that, lacking context, what he sees is determined by the theory he holds about what he is seeing. The honesty was touching as the describer almost apologetically says he can’t tell us as much as we and he would like to know. In his frustration, he correctly attributes both the value of the sense he has and its limitations. He can tell us that two people are talking, but he may not be able to tell us whether they are agreeing or disagreeing. He can tell us that a Capitol policeman is being chased by protesters, but if he has only that scene, he can’t tell us whether the law enforcement officer is running for his life, escorting people to places they don’t belong, or protecting the Senate chamber by acting as a distraction. All three of these interpretations were initially given in press accounts, but with context we now understand that this brave man was keeping people away from a corridor that would have given them access to a number of senators.

This puts me in mind of two incidents in my life that focus on what people see. I was born in Kansas City, but my parents wanted to move. Although they certainly wanted more land and a chance to be city farmers, they made it clear that part of their decision was what we now call “white flight.” The people who brought me into the world were good people, but they had prejudices which they communicated to me and my siblings. Every child was white in the schools my brothers and sister attended, but blindness put me on a different path that let me engage with people of other races, other cultures, and other religions.

As much as my parents and my siblings loved me, when we got to the place of discussing the similarity of human beings and the need for equal treatment, these conversations would always end with the galling statement that “Gary, if you could only see, you would understand. You would see the trashy neighborhoods we drive through. You would see the fancy cars that these people drive. You would see how people arrogantly cut in lines and make a mockery of the rules. We know you believe what you’re saying, but if you could only see, you would understand.” How does one meaningfully engage in such an argument when it all comes down to whether one can see? The implied message was that sight isn’t just information; it is essential in any important decision. I was usually credited with a good brain and judgment, but when it came to combating prejudice, it all came down to what I couldn’t see.

Unfortunately, incidents that overplay sight also find their way into the Federation. The NFB of Missouri annually hold a contest in which chapters compete to raise money for the affiliate. Each chapter nominates a king and queen, and the king and queen from the winning chapter get to sit at the head table, are introduced, and participate in a crowning ceremony. Sometimes the amounts given by the chapters differ greatly, but at other times the contest is a real horse race.

In a year when it was close, there was an allegation that the leadership knew how much each chapter had turned in and was actively working for one candidate by giving money before the official deadline. I was approached by one of the finest members we have, and she came to me because she loves the Federation and trusted me to deal with her issue. Her message was that cheating was going on in the contest and that various members were being solicited for contributions to alter the outcome. Her comment to me was, “Gary, you have to understand that not everyone in this audience is blind. Some folks who are here can see, and they know what is going on. They have told us that money is being collected for one of the teams.” When I started to protest that the exchange of money didn’t necessarily mean anyone was cheating, I had worn out her patience. “Gary, I’m telling you that there are people out here who can see what is going on. Even you are involved. At least twice today you reached into your pocket and gave people money. Again, not everybody is blind, and what is happening is clear to those who can see and those of us being told about it.”

I certainly can’t speak to what other people were doing in terms of raising money, but I know that in my own case, I made no contribution to influence the outcome of the contest. I did indeed remove my wallet twice while on stage. In one case I gave somebody change for a twenty-dollar bill. In another case a member of the host chapter came to me saying that one of our intellectually limited people had gone to the restaurant, ordered a large breakfast, and when asked to pay, just walked out. The hotel staff was prepared to have her arrested. I paid for the breakfast and felt good that I had helped someone get a meal who didn’t understand the system, that I had kept all of us out of legal trouble, and that I had preserved our good reputation with the hotel and its restaurant staff.

We have since changed the contest so that money is turned in at the same time, the amount given by each chapter is announced and confirmed, and there is no chance of one chapter knowing how close it is to other chapters. But the point really isn’t about a contest or rules; it is about sight being equated with knowledge and truth.

To see is a wonderful blessing. To hear is a tremendous asset and indeed a blessing. But hearing and seeing are not enough when what is required is real understanding. Without context, both can be misleading. Without context, we can jump to injurious conclusions. The takeaway for me has been that seeing often occurs through a lens of what one expects to see, and hearing is often encumbered by the filter that easily lets through what we expect and retards those things that make us uncomfortable. As important as our senses are, none of them is so important that they can substitute for context, understanding, and good judgment.

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