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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Genetics, Disability, and Deafness

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In 1996, scientists announced the discovery of the gene for anxiety. It made the front page of the New York Times, which reported that people who are fretful, anxious, and neurotic—“kvetches,” in the Times’s helpful translation into regional dialect—have a shorter version of a certain gene (SLC6A4, which is the serotonin transporter gene on chromosome 17q12, if you want to look it up) than do people of sunny disposition. The only sensible conclusion to be drawn from this report was that if you’re a worrier, it is not because you have a lot of things in your life to be worried about. It’s just because you’re a worrier. Does this make people who worry feel better? Of course not. They can’t feel better. That’s the whole point.

The discovery of the worry gene followed closely on the discovery, reported earlier that year, of the gene associated with the taste for novelty and excitement, the so-called “gene for bungee-jumping.” Now, it’s easy to make fun of these genes for behaviors, like bungee-jumping, which were not even invented back when our species emerged from the protozoan slime. But the truth is that they are immensely clarifying contributions to thought, for they reverse the usual relation between accident and necessity in human life. For people who lived in New York City, the obvious question raised by the discovery of the gene for anxiety was, if crabby and kvetchy behavior is genetically determined, why does New York City have so much of it? The answer must be that New Yorkers are not neurotic because they live in New York. They live in New York because they’re neurotic.

Once this principle has been grasped, many prejudices fall away. Cabdrivers are not impatient because they’re cabdrivers; they’re cabdrivers because they’re impatient. Taking care of small children does not make people feel stressed out; feeling stressed out is what makes people take care of small children. And so on. This is determinism, but it is determinism of a deeply appealing kind. We used to think of our moods and tastes as byproducts of the social and personal relations in which we happened to be stuck. Now we can see that the social and personal relations we are stuck in are only the accidental consequences of our tastes and moods. Many are born impatient; the lucky ones become cabdrivers. The animus seeks its animal. The circularity takes your breath away. It is as though scientists were to explain the behavior of the mosquito by showing it to have a gene for being annoying.

Still, every simplification sooner or later leads to complications, and genetic explanations for human personality and behavior, as delightfully shorn of metaphysical distractions as they seem to be, are no exception. First of all, there is, when you are explaining the basis of personality, the question of what a personality really is. Peter Kramer, in Listening to Prozac, a more thoughtful book than it got credit for being when it came out, noted the odd phenomenon of patients who told him, after they were on an anti-depressant medication, that they finally felt “like themselves.” For, of course, you can deal with the side effects of having a shortened serotonin transporter gene—the anxiety gene—by taking a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, or SSRI. This makes you lose the sensation of anxiety, and the result, even if you have always been an anxious person, can indeed be to make you feel “like yourself.” Kramer noted that this was a bit of a paradox: how is it that the chemically altered self feels more real, more genuine, than the biologically natural self?

Let me now turn to a key idea in current sociolinguistics in order to explore current BSL issues through a theoretical lens developed by Monica Heller in her studies of French speakers in Canada. Heller is interested in how we as language users respond to hypermodernity, the shift into new sociopolitical structures for the late-twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The notion of hypermodernity is aligned with the idea that we are no longer confined by the boundaries of the nation-state. This allows people to seek economic advantage in a transformed marketplace, redefined by the flow of information and services, by changing their positions (figuratively or physically in terms of relocation): “This is particularly important for linguistic minorities, whose linguistic repertoires have value that is radically different from the value they had when a centralizing nation-state and a primary-resource, extraction-based economy defined it. Linguistic minorities used the logic of ethnic state nationalism to resist that older form of power in order to enter the modern world. That modern world uses a different logic, and so linguistic minorities now have to define themselves in order to retain their economic and political gains, but without losing their legitimacy” (Heller 1999, 4).


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