Society’s Fear of Blindness

No one ever told me that grief felt so much like fear. –CS Lewis
Fear is a driving force in the characterization of the blind in our society. Losing sight is statically more feared than deafness or loss of limb, ranking fourth behind AIDS, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. ( It’s a physical loss that is damned scary. But something more is afoot in our world-because society’s characterization of blindness is rarely limited to physical loss. Instead, blindness has an implicit relationship with character, and always has. With our words, our myths, and the literature spanning centuries, blind are routinely cast as being extreme in character, whether evil, wise, inept, virtuous, wicked or tragic. Society continues to perpetuate and actively clings to this damning misconception. Why? By casting blind persons as extreme in character, they bear little resemblance to the sighted’s sense of self. Even more damaging, by recasting blindness as a predictable consequence of moral defect, society means to assure itself that blindness is not random but earned. In other words, it won’t happen to them.

It has been said that history is a record of what we have done and literature, a record of what we think.  Well, crap. Even a cursory glance at literature shows an unapologetically extreme view of blindness and the blind. The blind are evil in Stevenson’s Treasure Island, stupid in Shakespeare’s King Lear, confused in the Old Testament with Isaac, vapid in Charles Dickens’ “Cricket on the Hearth”, and the most pitied of characters, in Schiller’s William Tell, Kipling’s “The Light That Failed”, Conrad’s “The End of the Tether,” and D.H. Lawrence’s “The Blind Man.” And then there’s Greek tragedy. Here blindness is strongly associated with shame, usually a punishment for sins against authority or for sexual deviance. Think Metope, blinded as punishment by her father, or Polymestor, blinded for murder, or Alcmena, whose eyes were mutilated as a humiliation. Erymanthos was blinded after he saw Aphrodite bathing. Stesichorus was blinded for insulting Helen. Orion was punished for rape. For Oedipus, blindness was a punishment for incest. Shakespeare’s Gloucester was blinded for adultery. Even today, the myth that masterbation can result in blindness is perpetuated. The culture concerning blindness around the time of Christ is summed up in the ancient Hebrew saying, “Better off dead than living blind” and it is from this perspective that the disciples ask Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Neither, was the notable answer.

One could argue that many sighted characters in literature are portrayed as evil, confused, inept, corrupt and vapid too. That is true. The important distinction is that sighted characters run the gamut, from balanced to extreme, simple to complex, and in whatever way the author chooses to stunt the character’s development, it is not implicitly linked to a physical disability. By contrast, blind characters are most often two dimensional figures, lacking complex relationships: stock characters that are bloodless conduits of disability, and deserving of it.

Seem extreme? It is. Webster’s dictionary has eight definitions of blindness. The first speaks to an inability to see, physically. The second, third and fourth: lack of discernment or judgement. The fifth: defective.  Perhaps our dictionary’s definition of ableism could reference its own definition of blindness.

The obvious point is that the myths are untrue. Blindness is a physical state, and nothing more. There is seldom anyone to blame for a physical challenge, and those with an impairment are no different in temperament or character as whole than the rest of society. Yet, our world implies otherwise, in a white knuckled grasp at self preservation. It’s instinctive to comfort ourselves with differences between others and ourselves. When we hear that someone has lung cancer, we ask, “Did he smoke?” especially if we don’t. Random shootings are more disturbing to us than acts of domestic violence, even if the casualty numbers are the same. The obituaries that trouble us are the ones nearest our own age. The homeless person must not work as hard as we do. Distance and blame are our protection from vulnerability. Or so we think.

But it’s not working.The myths about blindness do not reduce anyone’s anxiety about blindness-blind or sighted. It intensifies fear. When blindness is seen as a dehumanizing condition, anxiety toward blindness rises, because the very dehumanization wielded as a protection is the greatest source of anxiety. Isn’t this powerfully acknowledged every time society employs it as its ultimate distancing tool?

In the end, the narratives about the tragedy of blindness have little to do with being sightless.

If there is tragedy in blindness, it is that it can stand between a person and his fully evolved potential, complete with authentic understanding, given and received. If there is virtue in it, it is that the vulnerability of it could be used to connect authentically with the parts of life a person holds dear. Either way, the blindness is not the problem or the prize. Being physically sightless is what it is, but let us not create the tragedy of ableism by misrepresenting visual impairment as something more than a physical condition. And let us not create tragedy within the sighted by chasing self preservation at the expense of humanity. This game has no winners.