Talking Hands: What Sign Language Reveals About the Mind
New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007
Christianity: A Short Global History
Oxford: One World, 2002
By LeRoy Lawson
For this reader, Margalit Fox’s title could be Talking Hands—and What They’ve Taught Me About Prejudice.
Prejudice is sneaky, hiding in the deepest crevices of the human psyche, seldom recognized in oneself even by the most accepting and fair-minded among us.
Campaigning Against Sign Language
Take our attitudes toward the deaf, for example. Who would have guessed that Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, whose compassion for his deaf wife and mother drove him to that achievement, campaigned against the adoption of sign language? He demanded instead that the deaf conform to the dictates of oral speech—so they would be more “normal” (which, of course, means “being more like me”).
And who would have thought that supposedly enlightened educators at an international congress in Milan, Italy, in 1880 would pass a resolution condemning sign language as an instructional method for the deaf? One speaker was certain God himself opposed sign language:
Oral speech is the sole power that can rekindle the light God breathed into man when, giving him a soul in a corporeal body, he gave him also a means of understanding, of conceiving, and of expressing himself. . . . While, on the one hand, mimic signs are not sufficient to express the fullness of thought, on the other they enhance and glorify fantasy and all the faculties of the sense of imagination. . . . The fantastic language of signs exalts the senses and foments the passions, whereas speech elevates the mind much more naturally, with calm, prudence and truth and avoids the danger of exaggerating the sentiment expressed and provoking harmful mental impressions.
Fox lifts a story from another book, Deaf in America, that illustrates how prejudice grows. It’s about Sam, a boy born into a deaf family with several deaf older brothers. He never lacked for playmates, although the girl next door was kind of strange.
He couldn’t talk to her as he did his deaf parents and siblings. She had trouble understanding even the simplest gestures. He finally gave up trying, but simply pointed and accommodated himself to her limitations.
Then one day they played in her home. Her mother walked in, and she and the girl began to animatedly move their mouths. “As if by magic, the girl picked up a dollhouse and moved it to another place.” He was mystified.
Back at his house his mother explained the concept of hearing, and that because her mother didn’t know how to sign, she and her daughter had to move their mouths to communicate.
It was an aha! moment for Sam. “He remembers thinking how curious the girl next door was, and if she was hearing, how curious hearing people were.”
There you have it. Hearing people aren’t normal.
By the early 20th century, spoken English had almost completely supplanted signing in American classrooms. I recall a conversation with parents of a deaf son who were determined that he would not sign but would master lip-reading and oral communication. They meant well. They wanted him to be normal.
Talking Hands isn’t really about prejudice in general or the discrimination the deaf have suffered and often suffer today, though this theme weaves its way through the book. It is instead a study, as the subtitle indicates, of what sign language reveals about the workings of the mind. It chronicles the research of a team of scientists in a remote Middle Eastern village where everyone, deaf and hearing alike, speaks sign language. Because of continuing intermarriage in the village, recessive deaf genes appear in a disproportionately high percent of the villagers. As a result, deafness is not deemed unusual. The deaf are fully assimilated into village life.
A boon for the researchers, this prevalence makes it possible to study a spontaneous sign language that made its first appearance 70 years ago and has evolved in the succeeding two generations, giving the scientists insight into how the mind enables language itself (not just sign) to grow and develop its grammar and syntax.
Without All the Facts
What do a brief history of sign language and a brief history of Christianity have in common? Even though neither book is really about prejudice, both offer undeniable proof that preformed opinions (conclusions drawn before all the facts are in) govern more powerfully in big matters and little than we want to admit.
On the first page of Christianity Fred Norris disarms the would-be critic: “Anyone writing a short global history of Christianity knows that the task is impossible, yet believes it is necessary.” OK, so we can’t complain if this fewer-than-300-pages survey is less than exhaustive and some of our favorite eras receive short shrift.
Acknowledging that “the term ‘Christianity’ is an abstraction,” Norris focuses on its fluidity through time as Christian individuals and groups form communities, debate in councils, evolve into institutions, crusade against “infidels,” and influence and are influenced by other religions and cultures, now advancing, now retreating, occasionally surrendering but even now vibrant and growing globally.
I’m especially grateful for the author’s attention to the sweep of Christian history in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. He never lets the reader forget that the church was not invented by the West, is not owned by the West, and in fact is not even strongest here.
Like this all-too-brief review, to compact so much material into such a short space means Norris’s never-withheld opinions (prejudices?), grand generalizations, and overstuffed (with facts and dates) paragraphs leave the reader wishing to raise an occasional “on the other hand” and to double-check the missing footnotes. Still, as a tracing of Christianity’s often convoluted trajectory from its humble Middle-East origins to its current robust presence, this “short global history” is a welcome addition to the bookshelf.
And as a study in how prejudice (not to be equated with the will of God) sometimes rules in the highest courts of the land and the noblest councils of the religious—well, it offers more evidence than we want.
LeRoy Lawson, international consultant for Christian Missionary Fellowship, is a Christian Standard contributing editor and a member of Standard’s Publishing Committee.