Charlie Swinbourne: What does ‘hearsplaining’ mean? (BSL)

Posted on November 30, 2017

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In the last year or so, the term ‘mansplaining’ has become well known for referring to the way some men explain (or talk over) women in a patronising, condescending way.

To watch this article article signed in BSL by Helen Foulkes, press play below, or scroll down to continue in written English!

One well-known example of this is the time when Matt Damon ‘mansplained’ diversity issues to a black female film producer (yes, really), and if you want more of an overview, here’s an article on six subtle forms of mansplaining.

As the term has become more well known over the last year or so, I’ve taken to using my own similar term for situations when non-deaf people speak in what I feel is a patronising or condescending way about D/deaf issues.

It’s – as the title of this article might suggest – ‘hearsplaining.’

‘Hearsplaining,’ as I use it, refers to non-deaf people who don’t really respect or take into account D/deaf people’s opinions, who assume they have expertise on D/deaf issues which is unwarranted, or more generally, talk down to D/deaf people.

(Before I go on, I want to be clear that there are hearing people – particularly in the academic and interpreting fields, including those who work closely with D/deaf people, or come from Deaf families – who are non-deaf but still have a great deal to contribute to D/deaf people. A hearing person talking about deafness isn’t necessarily ‘hearsplaining.’)

I’ve encountered ‘hearsplaining.’ I think a lot of D/deaf people have.

One recent example of ‘hearsplaining’ was added to Facebook recently. A non-deaf film director called John Leonetti has used Kiernan Shipka, a hearing actress, in a Deaf role (more on cultural appropriation here by the way) in his upcoming movie, The Silence. Leonetti said:

“I really think people haven’t seen her like this before. She learned to sign for the film, and now she’s flawless, like she’s been signing her entire life. She seems to have an almost innate sense of what it’s like being a deaf person.”

The comment was met by a range of negative comments (and quite a lot of funny GIFs) from Deaf people in response on Facebook.

(Incidentally, another recent example of a non-deaf actor playing a Deaf role is Julianne Moore in Wonderstruck. Look at what Deaf director Jules Dameron had to say about that in her Instagram post.)

Bearing in mind the fact that nearly all hearing actors’ performances in Deaf roles look incredibly inauthentic to Deaf audiences, how exactly would Leonetti, a non-deaf person, know whether Shipka looks like she’s been signing “her entire life”? Or whether or not she has an “innate sense of what it’s like being a deaf person”?

Even if he really believes it, even if he’s done a load of research, or has been told this by some sign language expert on set, to me it feels wrong to see a non-deaf person saying how authentic a non-deaf actor’s performance as a Deaf person is. We – D/deaf audiences – will be the judge of that.

Which is why I read that quote and turned to my wife and said: “hearsplaining.”

Perhaps it’s unfair to focus on Leonetti’s quote. It’s possible that after seeing the film I’ll change my mind.

But my response to his quote isn’t based on only his words – it’s based on my past experiences of seeing non-Deaf people give their views on the use of sign language in the arts.

Two conversations still stand out.

One was when a high profile drama aired on British TV, featuring a Deaf character. A month or so later, I was talking to a non-deaf person from the broadcaster, who said how amazing the performance had been.

In reply, I said I hadn’t enjoyed the performance because the actor’s signing had been so poor (in fact, a great deal of it was cut or obscured on screen, perhaps because it was so poor) meaning that I couldn’t believe in the character, and therefore, the whole series.

The person looked at me like I was being plain daft, (a bit like they thought I was being deliberately contrarian) and said “well, it doesn’t matter because people liked it and it still helped raise Deaf awareness.”

Another similar situation occurred a couple of years later. I watched a theatre performance which had a BSL interpreter. I knew the play well, and I felt the interpreter’s translation was weak and didn’t match the meaning of the play.

I was asked for feedback by someone from the theatre company after the play, but when I responded honestly, they rejected my views, telling me “no, no, he’s a really good signer.”

Which was hard to accept because while I’m not a BSL expert, the person telling me this knew no sign language at all.

This article has focused on ‘hearsplaining’ in the arts and entertainment industry, but there are so many areas of life that the term (or one like it) could be used for.

Take education. Is there a bigger example of ‘hearsplaining’ than the Milan 1880 education conference, where, after a discussion involving no Deaf people at all, a room full of non-deaf delegates voted to ban sign language from the world’s classrooms, leading to Deaf teachers losing their jobs and generations of Deaf children having only one option of language for their education?

What about the way that parents of deaf children are still sometimes advised not to sign to their children because that could affect their speech, despite research to the contrary? Where is the voice of D/deaf people who have lived those experiences, in advising these parents?

What of audiologists telling deaf people that digital hearing aids are better than analogue ones? Leaving them struggling to hear after being used to analogue sound for so many years? Or that a better hearing aid wouldn’t make any difference to them, as my wife was told several months ago? (Read her blog here).

Or non-deaf politicians telling us that they’ve done enough when it comes to BSL recognition here in England?

For me, these are examples of ‘hearsplaining,’ pure and simple.

You could argue that the history of D/deaf people goes hand in hand with non-deaf people telling us that they know what D/deaf people need better than Deaf people themselves.

And an element of ‘hearsplaining’ that should also be noted is that due to communication barriers, D/deaf people are often not able to counteract, debate or respond easily when it happens. Put it this way, if we knew exactly what people were saying around us, we’d be able to have our say far more easily.

A little ‘Deafsplaining’ – the inclusion of D/deaf people’s views, based on our experiences, would go a long way.

It’s important to say that there are brilliant non-deaf people doing great work that is far, far from being ‘hearsplaining.’ Here’s one example.

A few months ago (and I hope to write about this at some point), I was at a film festival and I met a woman who had done some amazing work in bringing Deaf people to the cinema she works in.

She had actually gone out into her local Deaf community, got to know people and asked them what they wanted to see at their local cinema, organising events that they’d told her they wanted to see.

During the talk at the festival, she told the audience of film festival planners that there were no easy fixes. That bringing Deaf people to their festivals meant reaching out to them and empowering them, rather than simply telling D/deaf people what they wanted (or what they were going to get).

She was advocating the opposite of ‘hearsplaining,’ and I left feeling inspired, wishing there were more non-Deaf people like her in the film and cinema industry.

More non-deaf people should learn from her example, and stop saying what they think about D/deaf stuff without including and empowering D/deaf people, or at the very least, bearing D/deaf people’s views in mind.

So there it is. ‘Hearsplaining.’ A useful term, or not?

I’ve found it handy but maybe it’s not for everyone. Or maybe there’s a term that means the same thing, except better?

Tell me what you think in the comments below.

Author’s note: within an hour of posting this article, I discovered that the term ‘hearsplaining’ or ‘hearingsplaining’ has previously been created and written about by US Deaf academic Teresa Blankmeyer Burke, for much the same reasons. I’m happy to credit her with the term. Read her article about it by clicking here.

Read more of Charlie’s articles here.

Charlie Swinbourne is a journalist and is the editor of Limping Chicken, and is also an award-winning filmmaker and screenwriter. Charlie has just set up his own media production company, Eyewitness Media. Both episodes of his new sketch comedy in BSL, Deaf Funny, can be seen on the BSL Zone website

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