Tom Humphries – Constructs of Self and Other

April 8, 2015

Tom Humphries presented Constructs of Self and Other at StreetLeverage – Live 2014 | Austin. His talk established that meaning making is typified by cultural and social processes that construct “worlds of meaning”, which when they interact, require careful negotiation and translation. Meaning is made within culture and across cultures.

You can find the PPT deck for his presentation here.

[Note from StreetLeverage: What follows is an English translation of Tom’s talk from StreetLeverage – Live 2014 | Austin. We would encourage each of you to watch the video and access Tom’s talk directly.]

This will be a very brief summary of a course condensed into 20 minutes. I normally teach a lengthy course about the problem of self-expression and the problem of culture. Culture as a world of meaning. Culture as a world of meaning created by people in that particular culture. Another culture creates a different world of meaning.

Culture as a World of Meaning

To understand the concept of culture as a world of meaning, you have to accept certain ideas. In any culture, you have processes. These processes are busy doing work – doing the work of culture. The work of culture is creating meaning. Those meanings are what we adhere to, what we base our understandings and interpretations of the world upon. Our understanding follows that meaning so that things mean something to us. Things that don’t have that meaning are hard to relate to.

So, meaning is important. In other words, that’s what people do. Humans do that in all cultures. We are all engaged in the construction of meaning. In a way, we “create ourselves”. We create ideas of who we are, what we are, who is in our world of meaning, what that looks like, what “we” means. In that process of constructing our world, we are also creating “other” – what “we” are NOT.  “We” are not “other” or “them”. “We” are that which we have given meaning, not that “other”, whose meaning we have also created. So, in creating ourselves, in the end, we are also creating the “other”. That’s a process that all people engage in.

The Evidence of Languages

In the creation of one world of meaning and the “other” world of meaning…where is the evidence that these two worlds are different? Where is the evidence that a meaning in one world is different in the other world? As an example, I’d like to use the evidence of language, using American Sign Language (ASL) and English as examples, as you saw in the previous slide. The slide showed four different representations – think of them as constructs. It’s hard to translate that English word “construct” but think of it as something we produce.

So, we have those four constructs. [Speaker indicates the four constructs from the power point slide.] There are two pairs. The pair on the right represents constructs in ASL, in Deaf culture. The other pair, on the left, is different – they are rooted in English and created by different people. The first construct – each of the four are labeled – the first on the right is DEAF. The sign DEAF in ASL is not an English word. [See ASL video at 4:34.]  I’m using the gloss DEAF to represent the ASL sign. Deaf people use the sign DEAF for that construct – the construct of the Deaf cultural self. That is our label; how we identify with the group we refer to as DEAF in ASL. English is not relevant to this construct. So, we have the DEAF construct. While we create the construct of our self, we also create the “other”. That “other” is called HEARING in ASL. [Presenter presents ASL sign for HEARING.] It represents what DEAF is not. If someone is not DEAF, they are identified as HEARING – the second construct in ASL.

Now, if we look at the far left construct – on the slide it was a symbol. [Presenter refers back to the slide.] The fourth construct on the left is the symbol Ø. They are symbolized in that manner because there is no name for that group – that construct has no name. Those people have no label for themselves. They are people who can hear.

The DEAF label their “other” construct HEARING which represents the Ø. But the construct that DEAF labels HEARING – people who are in the Ø construct do not label themselves HEARING. They have no name. You all know this – it’s old news for you. This is nothing new. The Ø construct creates itself without a label and it creates the “other” labeled “deaf”. The English word “deaf” – I will spell it because it is an English word – “deaf” is the label for the third construct.

So, those are the four constructs. Two are ASL constructs and two are English constructs. We have two different languages. Their meanings are different. So, the first construct in ASL was DEAF and we have the English word “deaf” (the third construct) and those constructs/concepts are not the same. They are often translated as if they are the same thing. The Ø group often uses the term “deaf” as if it meant DEAF. DEAF people often protest that the English word “deaf” is not what DEAF means – it doesn’t represent the full meaning of the construct that is glossed DEAF. The ASL sign we use for DEAF does not mean “deaf” as that word does in English. That translation is inaccurate.

That’s an example showing language from two different worlds of meaning. The constructs of self and “other” in these two groups are vastly different in the different languages. Languages don’t match meanings. If you take words from the English meaning system – deaf, culturally deaf, hearing or many other things from that system and compare, the concepts, the meanings are different than the meanings in ASL.  Basically, individuals from each thought world can look at a concept and wonder how they will know what someone from the “other” construct means.

The Constructs are Models

It helps to understand something about the process. First, we have to look at those four original constructs as models, meaning they are all constructed within a cultural process. In a way, it means those constructs are not real. They are all abstractions. So, a DEAF person creates a construct of self based on imagining who they are, what they want, their experiences, etc. All that is synthesized and that is what is meant when they use the sign DEAF. A DEAF person can say that is who they are, who their friends are, their tribe. All that is represented in that ASL construct DEAF. It’s a model. It’s not a real thing.

Let me go back a minute. I want to clarify. That model [presenter indicates DEAF construct], that meaning system is very real in interactions. Because not only is DEAF a model, so is the Ø construct. When Ø people meet DEAF people to interact, the question is, are those constructs really interacting? Not really.

[Presenter indicates the two center constructs, HEARING from the ASL constructs and “deaf” from the English constructs. Then presenter stops himself.]

Wait. You have to be careful. This is a complex issue.

So, when a DEAF person meets a Ø person, they see the HEARING construct and interact with that construct, not with the English construct Ø. By the same token, when a Ø person meets a DEAF person, they interact with the English “deaf” construct instead of the DEAF person. So, it is complicated.

We are in the business of making meaning, making thought worlds. Then world meets world and we have to determine who is talking to whom and where each party is coming from. It’s an important concept in culture. The whole idea of meaning translation and understanding across cultures is problematic. You do face the possibility of not knowing, of not understanding “who” is there.

This is an important concept because what we do is create meaning – constructs, but that restricts us. It restricts our understanding and it restricts our ability to truly know the “other”. Are you following my logic? We are focused on creating meaning, as in those four constructs. We construct HEARING based on what we know about people who can hear. But do we really know the Ø people? No. The same situation exists for the Ø group and their construct, “deaf”. Do the Ø people really know DEAF people? No.

That is not unusual or different. That’s a normal process within cultures. Cultures have mechanisms that produce meaning. That is important for us. We have to have that. It allows us to progress, to grow, to develop, learn, and become. Without that, who knows? But at the same time, this process filters and limits and defines things. Those definitions…maybe those definitions are not how we want to be defined by others. Maybe we don’t define others they way they want to be defined. That can happen. It’s a fact.

It’s important that you know this process, as interpreters. Whether you are an interpreter or a teacher or anyone who interacts across those four ASL and English constructs, you have to understand and know what’s going on, the process and the mechanisms involved. It will make your life easier if you understand that.There are a lot of reasons for that.

Meaning Must Be Negotiated

It will make your life easier if you understand that as you interact between and with those four constructs, there are negotiations involved. There are always negotiations – even with minor things and big, complex issues. They require negotiation. For example, two summers ago, I was involved with a real type of negotiation that really struck me as a good example of this.

[Presenter addresses AV staff: Can you show what was proposed to the American Heritage Dictionary as the definition of audism? Presenter references power point slide with definition printed.]

Two years ago, the American Heritage Dictionary decided they wanted to include a definition of audism in their dictionary. They used the definition we just saw, “Discrimination against deaf people.” Immediately, vlogs came out and there was an outcry from community members protesting what they felt was an inaccurate definition. I was contacted by the senior editor of the American Heritage Dictionary and engaged in conversation with him and one other Deaf person. The three of us had an enjoyable exchange of ideas as we discussed and debated and tried to explain what was wrong with the chosen definition. To his credit, the editor did accept that the definition was the wrong one and wanted to repair the error. I applaud him for that. As we went round and round, we struggled to define the concept in English. It is, after all, an English dictionary. It is based in that world, that meaning system. The other Deaf participant and I discussed how to tell a hearing editor, in English, what was meant. It was tough.

Normative Bias

The basic problem is that the chosen definition was only half the story. Discrimination is a part of the definition, but it doesn’t explain the full concept. Audism isn’t about discrimination; it is about ideology, a belief system which is the basis for discrimination. Discrimination only represents the surface of this issue. Audism is what lies beneath that surface. So, we told the editor that he wasn’t defining audism, he was defining the symptoms of audism – what happens, what you can see. In that conversation, we quickly realized that his definition was created from that Ø construct, that meaning system. That sign for Ø is awkward – I just adopted it because I needed a symbol and I didn’t have any other ideas.

At any rate, the editor- again, kudos to him.. The editor knew immediately what the problem was. He realized his mistake. The American Heritage Dictionary company had already initiated the process for checking all entries in the dictionary for what they called “normative bias”. They were considering every entry and making changes to every word where the definition displayed normative bias. Normative bias means the starting point, the basis for the definition. For example, the editor gave me a great example – the word “tan”. The English word “tan”. We sign “TAN” [See ASL sign at 17:20.] For a long time, the dictionary definition said, “Skin made brown by the sun.” They realized this was an error because “Skin made brown by the sun” meant that the skin was not brown in the first place. Many people in the world are already brown. What they had done was make an assumption that white was the normal state. So, they changed the definition to “skin made darker by the sun.” Now, the definition works for all skin tones. The new definition doesn’t assume a starting point.

We realized that he was right. We have to start with the assumption that Deaf people are not hearing people who went bad; Deaf people are not broken hearing people. He got it completely. So, the definition selected? This is what we ended up with:

American Heritage Dictionary: New definition as of December 2012

  1. The belief that people with hearing are superior to those who are deaf or hard of hearing.
  2. Discrimination or prejudice against people who are deaf or hard of hearing.]

I learned something from my dictionary work. That’s what they call a “two sense definition”. I thought he meant “two cents” but he clarified that it was “two sense” – having two meanings. So, a definition that has two different meanings listed is “two sense”. I knew that many words do have two or more definitions. The editor indicated that two were required, so we kept the definition which included discrimination. Many people use that meaning and understand audism based on that definition. That is the secondary meaning. The first meaning listed currently is about the belief system. So, we successfully negotiated across meaning systems. It’s complicated. We didn’t think it would require much effort to explain to him so that he would see our point, but it required a great deal of discussion and explanation to come to a mutual understanding. Negotiation takes work.

Context is Everything

Negotiation takes work because our world is complex. What goes on, contextually, is complex. Interactions are complicated.

[Timekeeper indicated approaching end time from off camera. Presenter responded.]

I understand. They just gave me the time.

Interactions are complicated. Context is everything. You have to look to the meaning systems that are interacting. Remember one thing – when you negotiate meaning, remember that meaning is made within each culture. When two cultures come together to interact, that space where they meet – meaning is made there too, but that meaning also goes back to each culture, as well. So, meaning is made in each culture and their meanings may be different. When those cultures come together, they create new meaning which they bring back to their own meaning systems. Those shared meanings then transfer and become part of both individual meaning systems. Meanings that are made apply to the cultures where they were made. There will always be these two different meaning worlds and they will always require understanding and negotiation when they come together. Okay? It is a simple idea.

Thank you.

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2 Comments on "Tom Humphries – Constructs of Self and Other"

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Terry Druehl

I found this presentation so insightful and spot on. Helps to better understand the work of interpreting and will help me to be mindful of my approach. Been at it for 28 years and its nice to still find ways to get better.

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