Let’s get this up front – the NFB has done amazing things for the blind. I have nothing but the utmost respect for the policies they’ve helped push through that genuinely make it possible for the blind to not let their disability define them (that’s actually sort of their mission statement, come to think of it, and it’s a good one). When I was in Denver, one of the big things they were helping push were those little pop-up dots you see on street corners, which help give definition to corners for those who need it, and now in 2017, my hometown finally has those, along with clearly defined pedestrian crossing lines that will – hopefully – stay painted on a more regular basis.
That’s one tiny example of the things they’ve done that has affected my life, but there are many, many more. They are, in general, a terrific bunch of individuals and I want you to understand up front that what I’m about to say should in no way deter you from supporting their efforts. Cool? Cool.
That all said, just like every other ideology out there, the NFB can sometimes put themselves first above the whole, and just like every other ideology, it can be self-righteously abrasive.
Yes, I probably just insulted your particular -ism. In fact, I’m sure I did. There’s a point to be made here that’s not going to please a single one of you, and I want you to understand I’m including myself and my particular beliefs in this as much as I am yours, okay? So just gimme a second and oil up your torches, because it’s gonna get a little worse before you (hopefully) see what I’m driving at.
Every ideology, be it religious, political, spiritual, or even rational, breeds a certain subset of thinking that tends towards an “us versus them” mindset. This tends not to come from the “normal” individuals within a group, but those who latch onto its ideals as a parasitic means to affirm their own self-worth. That’s pretty obvious, right? Except you get enough people of that mindset together in a room and isolate them from the whole and suddenly you’re breeding jingoism, xenophobia, and a destructive sense of self-importance.
That’s when things get uncomfortable for outsiders – and ironically, why it breeds even more xenophobiastic (is that a word? I’m making it a word) belief systems, until you’ve wound up with two or more groups shouting at each other because they’ve stopped looking at things as a whole and can only peep out from within their own metpahorical fortress.
That self-fulfilling prophecy of separating one’s self (or group) for the sake of believing you’re “right” about how to think, behave, and act are why I’m loath to identify myself in any particular ideology. I’m wary of anyone who identifies themselves as a whole because that will invariably lead to mud-slinging and radical behavior as a group when they feel threatened or needy and I don’t agree with that. Don’t get me wrong – I’m a judgmental asshole of the nth degree, but I do it on my terms, without associating with a group or mindset of anyone else.
Am I Christian? Sure, in the sense that I like Jesus’s teachings and the basics of the Ten Commandments, and I like to believe in both heaven and a greater kinder force than what we are capable of as people. I do not adhere to one particular subset of that belief because to do so is to willingly blind myself to the harm my group can cause, regardless of if we believe we’re in the right or not. It… hmmm. It narrows myself to a degree that I don’t like. Faith, I think for myself anyways, should be somewhat flexible so long as what is good is being stood for. Does that make any sort of sense whatsoever?
It all kind of goes back to something a history teacher of mine, Pat Morris, used to say about being the one person in a room full of “yes men” having the guts to say “no,” even if you sort of believe in saying yes – all because critical self-examination is a necessity. Those are my words, not his, but you get the gist of it.
In any case, I don’t much like -isms or factions or whatever people choose to identify as because the minute you start identifying as a sole group, you are cutting yourself off from the world as a whole. Protecting your own when it’s necessary is an absolute must, but the definition of what is necessity should always be weighed and measured against the world as a whole at that moment. Or to probably misquote Star Trek, the needs of the few should not outweigh the needs of the many. I probably butchered that. I’m not a fan of the show – wait, come back! I like that Picard guy!
Anyways, I give you that lengthy preamble because the National Federation for the Blind is just as capable as any other group of producing a mob mentality of self-righteousness. Weekly cheerleading sessions for the NFB – who backed the Colorado Center for the Blind – were kind of informative at first. These were group bullshit sessions where questions would be poised tot he students as a whole and we’d answer them, always with a slight nudge towards a sense of “go us!” Which is AWESOME, don’t get me wrong – those sessions helped me become less nervous about my own blindness, but often times, those questions were pushed in such a way as to give it a slight “us versus them” mentality.
We were given presentations too, speakers from the NFB’s mass collective (and holy shit, if you want to look at some impressive numbers, do some research on how big of a lobbyist group they really are, and how many strong the NFB is). These were far more obvious in their hoorahing. I, ah, didn’t do very well sitting on my hands in these ones, and I’m sorry to say that as the months wore on, I grew less and less patient with these presenters. I wanted to be there to learn Braille and function on a day to day basis, not have a belief system crammed down my throat, but considering how many days of school I skipped out of exhaustion and frustration, that’s hypocritical.
Perhaps, though, the greatest example of why I don’t count myself among the NFB’s legion came from a state conference in Denver that fall. We were told we’d be staying in a pretty damn nice hotel for… either a night or a weekend, I don’t remember. Regardless, the conference would take place over a couple of days, and we were told this was mandatory. Fine, right? I mean, hey, it offered up a new experience and got us a view of how the NFB worked to push city, state, and national policies for the blind which could have been a really cool experience.
By the end of that conference, I was done. Utterly done. The clock wasn’t ticking yet on my decision to head home, but that was definitely the beginning of the end for me.
By that point, I was already grumpy about NFB pushiness within the school. A lot of the individuals who went to the CCB were my age or older, and who were perfectly capable of making up their own minds about how to think and what to take with them ideologically, but a great many of the students there were fresh out of high school, with this being their first real experience on their own. I’d experienced the harm of being innocent and shoved into sudden acceptance in a group setting (I was deep into a Christian group my freshman year of college just because I’d never fit in anywhere and I was grateful to have people around me), so I became very paternal about these kids and tried to make sure they recognized that there were other ways to think than the NFB’s.
That didn’t win me a lot of favors, but maybe for the first time, I was well and truly satisfied that I was being that one guy in a room full of yes men to say no for a damn good reason. Come the conference, and the realization that I was trying to plug up a river with my pinky finger.
Much of the conference was just figures and presentations being made about stuff that was of interest to the blind at large. Not exactly thrilling stuff, but hey, seeing the inner cogs turning is necessary. But then there came a larger meeting wherein policies were being discussed about things the NFB wanted to push for the city and state to do for them, and that’s when the klaxon sirens went off.
Let me give you the firmest example I distinctly remember. When we traveled by bus from point A to point B, it was commonplace for us to ask the bus driver to call out the two stops ahead of ours. That’s a pretty simple thing to ask a bus driver to do, and I never remember any problems with it.
At that conference in Denver, the NFB wanted to make it a policy for bus drivers to call out ALL stops regardless of their necessity to us. All of them. Because… reasons. We would be creating more work for bus drivers without justification, who would then be regulated by whatever watchdog group tracks that stuff, and it would become a mandatory pain in the ass for them. A very minor one, but here’s the gist of what I’m getting at – this was the way it was with a staggering mountain of stuff the NFB pushed back then.
And therein lies my inherent beef with the NFB as a whole. Among the many great things they do for the blind, there are a dozen unnecessary actions considered that disregard the potential effect on the whole for very negligible benefits that can be obtained just by asking. Whether that bill passed or not, I have no idea. I don’t follow the legislation of Colorado or Denver and by the end of that conference, my mind was whirling with the sheer ego of the group as a whole.
The whole thing left a greasy taste in my mouth, one I still can’t shake. Progress for those in need is a great thing, something that should be fought for. But when it comes at a cost of blinding the self to the whole… I don’t know. Believe what you believe. But always remember there are others out there believing what they believe too. A whole world of them. And if you purposefully blind yourself to hurting or discomfiting them for a greater sense of self of self-value, you do yourself or your ideology any good.
And unfortunately, that was how I felt about the NFB – so much potential to do good, but so much potential to put themselves first too.
In the next blog entry, we’ll return one last time to the Colorado Center for the Blind to talk about what ended up really mattering to me there, and why I went home feeling like I’d learned what I needed to. Thanks for reading.