The Use and Abuse of Blindness (7)

This is the seventh in a series of posts.

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Moments of Restoring Vision: Cases of Vision Restored

On a bitter cold morning in early 2016, I was standing next to my 6-year-old daughter in front of the bathroom mirror. We were playing with face paint: yellow stripes, green dots, a blue spot here and there. At one point, my daughter dug her index finger into the little bucket of white paint, and, as she spread it across her cheeks, she said: “Look, Mamma, now I’m getting ready for when Trump is president. So they won’t know we’re Mexicans.”

She doesn’t watch much news and doesn’t seem to pay very close attention to the radio, but perhaps somehow she knew about how Donald Trump had announced his candidacy for the presidency, saying, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” but instead sending “rapists.”

One night at the dinner table, shortly after the election, my daughter told my husband and me, “Maybe we shouldn’t speak Spanish in the street anymore, just in case.”

She had started looking at herself, and at us as a family, in a different, bleaker light. I saw the shame in her eyes, the embarrassment she felt about her cultural and linguistic heritage.

The quotation above is the opening passage of “The Littlest Don Quixotes Versus the World,” a recent New York Times column by novelist Valeria Luiselli (“Sunday Review” section, June 23, 2018). That opening passage describes a moment from the recent past in which the words of her child, and  the shame in herself they revealed that child to have, broke through any blindness the mother had in the face of contemporary reality in the United States of America. In that moment, Valeria Luiselli’s own vision was restored.

To begin the third post of this current series (“Motivations for Blindness: First Case”), I used a passage from Milton Mayer’s 1955 study They Thought They Were Free: The Germans 1933-1945. In that passage Mayer quotes a German philologist colleague who was speaking with him a few years after the end of World War II. At the start of what I cited, the philologist refers to a moment during the mid-1930s in Nazi Germany when his own vision was restored to him, a moment the features of which are indeed similar to Valeria Luiselli’s own moment of restoring vision eighty years later and an ocean away. 

The German recounts his own experience of a moment of restoring vision in the opening lines of what I cited in that third post, lines worth repeating here: 

And one day, too late your principles, if you were ever sensible of them, all rush in upon you. The burden of self-deception has grown too heavy, and some minor incident, in my case my little boy, hardly more than a baby, saying ‘Jew swine,’ collapses it all at once, and you see that everything, everything, has changed and changed completely under your nose.  

Thus, both Mayer’s confidant’s and Luiselli’s moments of restoring vision are occasioned by passing remarks from their own childen. Furthermore, both invove shame. However, the dynamics of that shame differ significantly in the two cases.

In Mayer’s confidant’s case, the confidant’s young son’s remark reveals to the father how that son has been embued with racist contempt for their Jewish neighbors. That revelation awakens  shame in the father, a shame for what he has been complict in allowing to happen to his son: the racist hatred that has been thrust upon that son by the coercive force of the Nazi German society in which the boy must live. 

Even by Mayer’s confidant’s own final assessment, the shame involved in this case—the shame the confidant, not the son, feels—is deserved, because that confidant’s own motivated blindness about the impact of his own decisions and actions did indeed make him complicit in the violation that has thus been perpetrated upon his son. As so deserved, that shame is a burden the father—again even by his own acknolwedgment—is henceforth morally obliged to continue to bear and to acknowledge.  

On the other hand, in Luiselli’s case, her young daughter’s remark reveals to  Luiselli the shame felt by the child, her daughter, rather than by the parent. Mayer’s confidant’s son, through no choice or fault of his own, had racist hatred of others involuntarily imposed upon him by the coercive power at work in his own society of Nazi Germany. Luiselli’s daughter—through no more choice or fault of her own than Mayer’s confidant’s son had for the racism thrust upon him eighty years earlier in a country thousands of miles away—had shame for being who she was thrust upon her by the coercive force of the American society into which she had been born. 

However, the revelation to Luiselli, the young girl's mother, of the shame her daughter felt just for being who she was, did not awaken shame in Luiselli herself, as the revelation of the racism his son expressed awakened it in Mayer’s confidant. Until that moment in which her vision was suddenly restored, Luiselli had been no less involuntarily blind to what was being done to her daughter than her daughter herself was blind to it. Accordingly, instead of the revelation of her daughter’s shame awakening shame in the mother as well, that revelation awakened the mother’s determination to do whatever she could to overcome the violence, the violation, that American society had inflicted on her innocent child—a determination that needed to be enacted above all in the small, everyday events of her daughter’s ongoing life. 

That eventually led, in turn, to a moment of vision for Luiselli’s daughter that removed the daughter’s shame in herself, and set the child on a new and renewing path. In my next post, I will discuss that and some other instances of “moments of restoring vision” in which it was not so much the capacity to see that was restored, as it was the very being of  those who had that capacity.

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To be continued.