April 7th, 2006

ozarque figure

Book excerpt; bias toward sight in U.S. culture

[Excerpt (lightly edited for space reasons) from Staying Well With the Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense, pp. 126-128]

"The Eyes Have It: Sightism"

There are many books and cassettes and videotapes on visualization, especially now that its routine use by athletes has made it respectable. Athletes are not viewed as flaky misfits with bizarre ideas. If your preferred way to process information is by using your eyes -- by reading, by looking at films, by studying charts and maps and diagrams and graphs -- you will probably find many of those materials useful. But most of them reflect a curious prejudice of our society -- sightism -- that makes them useful only to people who learn and understand and remember best with their eyes. I'm sure that sightism is responsible for the failures many experience when they try to put information about visualization to work, and it is a bias perpetuated by language. Consider the names given to the technique. "Visualization" and "imaging" are actions of the eyes only. For people who learn best when they hear information rather than see it, and people who have to get "hands-on" experience in order to really learn, those two words and all their related words raise barriers to success before they even begin. Those two words carry the message, "This is not for you -- this is for eye people!"

An article by Sally Squires in American Health for July 1987 had a sidebar titled, "How to Use Guided Imagery," meant to be helpful and informative. Here are a few representative quotes -- they're typical of all such materials.

"As you begin the imagery, picture a place where you feel safe..."
"...make yourself a participant in the vision, not just an observer..."
"...picture the setting you are trying to change..."
"Try to 'see' this svelte new you."

Instructions like these may contain an occasional suggestion that you hear or feel something (or smell or taste something). But the bias toward the eyes is overpowering. An amazing example arrived in my mailbox the other day. It's a handsome catalogue of cassette tapes. Eerything from tapes for small children to complete novels and nonfiction books recorded for adults is represented, and every item offered is intended to be heard. However, the title on the catalog is "The Mind's Eye"! Betty Edwards' two excellent books, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, and Drawing on the Genius Within, seem to have been written without attention to the fact that sight is not the only sensory system in human beings. Edwards' proposal that people have trouble expressing their perceptions of the world in art because they rely on stereotyped "alphabets" of the way they think things should look is tremendously valuable. But there is no hint that people might also have stereotyped inventories of sounds and textures standing between them and creative expression.

I don't think any of this is deliberate bias. Instead, it has its source in two facts about our culture which we know so well that we have forgotten all about them.

First: A majority of people in our society do prefer sight to the other senses, and this is strongly reinforced by our educational systems and all our media. Touch is so strongly dispreferred that we bring up our children in a constant barrage of antitouch orders, telling them "Don't touch!" and "Keep your fingers to yourself!" from morning to night. Touch dominant children are forbidden to run their fingers along the line of print when learning to read and are required to master the basic skills by eye and ear alone -- although we would never require the sight-dominant child to learn those skills while wearing a blindfold. It's probable that the people writing the materials about visualization are eye people themselves, and they fall into sightist writing without any conscious intention or awareness.

Second: The English language reflects this cultural preference by lacking an adequate vocabulary for presenting the material without sight bias. There are no hearing or touch words that correspond easily to "visualize" -- there is no "hearize" or "auditize" in the everyday vocabulary, much less "touchize" or "feelize" or "tactilize." (If those hypothetical words sound slightly ridiculous to you, that is precisely my point.) This means that even writers who are seriously concerned about eye bias and would like to avoid it are hampered by a lack of vocabulary for that purpose. And saying, as some of them do, that when they use sightist words they mean them to include all the senses is like using only masculine pronouns with a note saying you mean them to include both genders; it doesn't work.

The first thing to do, therefore, to make visualization techniques useful for everyone, instead of just the dominant eye people, is to give the process a new name that will be sensory-system neutral. There is one from which we can work -- the word "perceive." I suggest that we take this perfectly good English word and call the process of deliberately creating internal perceptions percepting. And when I provide instructions, instead of telling you to "picture" something I will suggest that you perceive it.

[End of excerpt]

Afternote: The book (from Prentice Hall 1990 and MJF Books 1996) goes on to offer "guided percepting" suggestions, including suggestions for people who are hearing dominant or touch dominant. So far as I know, my attempt to introduce "percepting" as an alternative to "visualization/imagery" has had no effect.