Society for Linguistic Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
Protactile DeafBlind communities in the United States gave up on politeness about a decade ago. I was there when it happened, and the transformation took over my relationships. One key example: I had developed a habit of jumping up and intervening any time a DeafBlind person was “groping around”—touching things, bumping into walls, reaching their hands out into empty space. Groping, to me, meant that the person was lost and needed a guide. To total outsiders, groping seemed improper and in public spaces, I felt their judgements in evaluative gaze or explicit reprimand. However, my protactile friends stopped caring about those judgements and they instructed me not to act. I experienced not-acting as a state of jumpiness or nervousness—like a tick that is difficult to manage. It was years before that response was replaced by a calm curiosity about the knowledge that is acquired when one touches, rather than sees, their environment. I started watching my friends grope and I imaged what they were learning. At that point, perhaps, I became polite in a new way. Not the kind of polite that is grounded in mutual face-vulnerability and strategic manipulation, but rather in what Bergson calls “the art of finding life lovable,” wherein I am attentive to you. I notice how you move and how you think. As in a dream, I discover in myself a “light and mobile sympathy” that allows me to experience some of what you experience, but weightlessly and without effort.