The Culture Crush
Society Is Everybody's Business
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The Weekly

THE WEEKLY

Ongoing examinations of our culture and the back and forth between the expressions of the mainstream and the movements and ideas that stand to counter them. But more than a trip through the cultural continuum, it is a weekly conversation between generations, industries, and schools of thought. We ask you to join us in posing questions about our society— and about ourselves.

COMMUNICATION BREAKDOWN

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Our senses are powerful, they connect us to one another, to the earth, and to everything around us. So much so that we consider the loss of one a crippling disability. But then why are we so insistent on tuning it all out? Instead of waking up to every new day smelling the roses, listening to the birds chirp and gazing at the sunrise, we now rush right into our little screens, headphones on, the world turned off; sometimes even before the rooster has even had a chance to crow. It seems like almost everyone on their morning commute is frantically scrolling their newsfeed, listening to podcasts in an effort to try and save America, or torturing their thumbs with an addictive social game. Our efforts to mute the world take us out of the moment; in a way making ourselves deaf to the world around us. We’ve developed so many new ways to communicate that we’re distracted and not communicating at all. And while a break from reality is a welcome relief in this crazy, erratic news cycle, it’s hard not to feel like day to day life is passing us all by as we stare at our screens listening to Spotify rather than to each other. Maybe we should take some cues from the deaf community itself, as their experiences navigating the world have them a bit more tuned in. 

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In his new piece, Michael Capodiferro explores deaf culture and comes to the conclusion that in an attempt to navigate our brave new world we now use a lot of they same life hacks that the deaf community figured out long ago. “To those who are hard of hearing or deaf with a capital D, society’s inability to recognize that world’s rich and infinitely resourceful culture has left them in many ways far ahead of the curve. In other words, it is the deaf who are quietly ahead. They are the rock and roll royalty when it comes to early adoption of communication technology, they invented elements of behavior eventually adopted by mainstream cultural organizations, have a more profound relationship to language, and excel at storytelling. So as the the deaf community has grappled with what society considers to be a disability, time after time, their solutions to practical problems in some ways made them the ultimate life hackers.” Read Good Vibrations.

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After all, deafness itself does not hold a person back, it is society’s ignorance of their culture that does. "For instance, every time you see your favorite NFL team in a huddle, you can thank the deaf community, and in particular, some very clever athletes at D.C.’s Gallaudet University, “the world's only university designed to be barrier-free for deaf and hard of hearing students.” In the 1890’s, Paul Hubbard, the quarterback for Gallaudet led his team into a huddle so that the other team couldn’t see the plays they were signing to each other. Now think about how baseball pitchers and catchers communicate through hand gestures. The deaf community are the world champions in finding ways to communicate that throw barriers to the sidelines."

For the rest of us, almost all communication, thanks to digital image capture and the mainstream adoption of texting, is now becoming oriented to the visual. And while we in the hearing world were barely figuring out the fax machine, the deaf community had been fluent in Text Telephone shorthands since the 1970's, like symbolically typing out the word "smile" to express that emotional reaction, a precursor to the symbols and emoticons we thought were so very 21st century. But "communication is literally what the deaf world is all about as they are continually starved for ways to share words together. They were onto the pocket computer craze right from the start, adopting and sending complex intuitive visual cues long before there was Snapchat or Animoji."  

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So while we are busy trying to replace breaking bread together with cans of Soylent or strapping on virtual reality amusement park rides, it seems like we’re trying to tune out the world rather than be part of it, for the good and the bad. However, there really is nothing more human than our ability to communicate with one another. The mainstream world could learn a thing or two from the deaf community. Maybe we should just put the phone down, take out our earbuds, and remember to listen to the world around us. It’s high time we bring ourselves back down to earth, and not just Google Earth.

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Like most people, the members of Beethoven’s Nightmare were first introduced to music at a young age. But unlike most people, and especially unlike most musicians, the artists in this band are all deaf. Steve Longo, the band’s lead guitarist, taught himself to play the guitar as a kid, plugging his headphones into an amp and using a device called an illuminator, which turned on a certain light according to which note he played. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, Bob Hiltermann was growing up as the only deaf kid in his family of 10. Hiltermann taught himself the drums with the help of cranked up headphones. Around the same time, Ed Chevy was growing up in an all-deaf family. Chevy got a hearing aid at age seven, and after being blown away by The Who in concert, decided to learn to count out beats and measures, which led him to the bass guitar. As fate would have it, the three would meet while attending Washington, D.C.’s Gallaudet University, where they formed a band that’s still together four decades later. Cleverly named after the worlds most famous deaf musician, Beethoven’s Nightmare  are known to their fans as “The Greatest Deaf Rock Band in the World.” But unlike Beethoven, who thought of his hearing loss as a literal nightmare, these bandmates use their deafness to help make their music. 

They write music by making out just a bit of the lower frequencies, but none of the higher ones, just as they all separately did when they were young. Not surprisingly, so did Beethoven himself. By using the feel of the vibrations from the drums and bass of their instruments they’re able to break the wall of silence. Like their origin story, their sound is a bit unusual. A combination of rock and roll, country, and punk, it’s sort of hard to define. But one thing is sure-their high energy performances get the crowds going. They hand out balloons to both their deaf and hearing audiences to hold so they can feel the same vibrations the band feels from the double speaker monitors behind them, and cranked up amps.

debra scherer