When Seeing Is Not Enough: Hearing for Truth In An Era of Disinformation and Pandemic
by Antero Garcia - October 28, 2021
Building off recent research I published about exploring sound with young children on a school bus (pre-Covid), this essay questions the limits of vision-centered research approaches. I offer the metaphor of the Pinard Horn as a way of hearing the world around us: the Pinard horn is a non-invasive listening device for hearing the development of fetuses; it transformed obstetrics nearly a century ago and is continued to be used today. By offering this metaphor, I turn to questions of empathy and seeing versus hearing the voices of anti-vaxxers in this country. This essay connects qualitative social science research methodology to questions of empathy and healing amidst the pandemic. It links field-based research with children to larger questions about politics, trust, and disinformation.
Maybe we see too much and sense too little.
It was something I wondered out loud as I gazed at a sea of largely static, black Zoom boxes during a recent invited talk for educators.
In my work as an educational researcher, and as someone who teaches future teachers, Ive been trying to broaden the ways we make sense of the learning environments and the world around us.
Building off a point that Kathy Mills (2016) madethat educational research broadly (and our shared field of literacies research in particular) is too mired in occularcentrismIve been seeking new metaphors for understanding and acting upon the world. Rather than simply seeing the world through myriad lenses, for instance, Ive been wondering how we might hear our way toward perhaps a more empathetic relationship with the spaces around us. Im not the only researcher in this space, and the contexts of multimodal and sound-specific research are robust. Rather, my urgency in this endeavor is tied to a sense of ruptured democracy and trauma that is largely unfolding before our eyes todaydoomscrolling, flooded contexts of misinformation, circulated images state-sanctioned Black suffering. These are the reasons I wonder if weresearchers, educators, and society at largesee too much and sense too little.
For instance, when I think back, it is often the sounds of pregnancy that I remember the most. In ultrasound offices, with the lights dimmed and the small monitor offering inky blobs that needed to be deciphered by someone else, it was the aquatic whooshes and the amplified gallop of hearts pumping at double-speed that were both the alien and the reassuring soundscapes that ushered in a new phase in our familys life. My wife and I heard a new world approaching us, and the grainy images that accompanied them felt secondary to me.
I think this is why Ive been thinking a lot about the Pinard horn lately (Pinard Horn, 2021). Invented in the late 1800s by Adolphe Pinard, the Pinard horn allows medical caregivers to actively listen to fetal heartbeats and assess growth and development. As a safe way to support pregnant people, the Pinard horn has been an important metaphor for me to consider the noninvasive ways we might come to know a world around us and how such an approach might require figurative deciphering of information in the dark.
My research team and I recently published an article about sound and understanding youth experiences on a school bus (Garcia et al., 2021). We discuss how the Pinard horn can symbolize a way to parse the raucous cacophony of several dozen young people sitting in afternoon traffic as they make the slow traffic-laden commute from one side of town to another. Our eyes might show us an assemblage of eager learners sacrificing time at home, time with friends, and time to relax in the name of educational opportunity. Our ears, though, might point to the human moments of play and ingenuity and bullying and hunger and anxiety that are always present on this same bus.
From what Ive found, there is not a good biography about Adolphe Pinard in English. Ive read a few medical encyclopedia entries (and Wikipedia, of course). By all accounts, Pinard was a powerful leader and a beloved contributor to our understanding of obstetrics and womens health. He was a leader and an innovator. Considering that the Pinard horn is still used today, countless lives have been saved by his work.
Reading the Wikipedia entry on Pinard pointed me to William Schnieders (1990) book-length exploration of the French eugenics movement, Quality and Quantity: The Quest for Biological Regeneration in Twentieth-Century France. Pinard played an important role in this fraught period: He cofounded the French Eugenics Society and served as its president. Throughout his work, the ideas of genetic and racial superiority were woven into his medical beliefs. As Schnieder wrote, Pinard consciously reaffirmed the importance of heredity (p. 82) and, building from eugenics movements in other countries, redirected attention toward the study of its influence on the quality of the species (p. 82). From reading Schnieders account, I can imagine that the Black and Brown children my research team worked alongside in our research on a public school bus would be reviled by Pinard.
In todays social media climate, what would we do with a Pinard? Whats overlookable in light of ones contributionsmedical, aesthetic, scholarly? What calculus of lives saved and pregnancies supported allows for heinous, ongoing forms of harm in schools, in hospitals, and in all facets of public life today?
As Ive been wrestling with Pinard and how his work has been guiding my interpretation of the world, Ive been also thinking a lot about Stephen Harmon.
I never met Stephenit feels a little odd to refer to him, a stranger, by his first name. He showed up in my group chat over the summer when a friend shared a headline: Man Who Tweeted About Having 99 Problems but a Vax Aint One Dies of COVID (Montgomery, 2021).
Stephen was part of a cast of folks my friends and I would text about derisively, the deathbed regrets of antivaxxers shared among us. We offered two-word commentaries to these links: No sympathy.
This is, perhaps, one kind of occularcentrism at work. My cynical and lefty lens can see Stephen as representative of a larger problem in America, and one thats kept me and my family overly sheltered and cautious for the nearly two years of a pandemic at this point. Those galloping heartbeats I remember hearing during ultrasound appointments? Those belong to my unvaccinated now two-year-old daughters. The choices that Stephen made actively made this world a little less safe for my family, and that is a harsh but real lens through which I can see his actions.
But lately, Ive been trying to turn an empathetic ear to the world and the lives around me. What gifts can we glean from attuning to Stephens once-beating heart?
I remember wondering more about who Stephen was.
I remember, during my haphazard searches, stumbling across an Instagram post (Brown, 2021) that Stephens pastor made in light of his passing: You were always the greatest encourager & loved your family so well and we loved you back so much, he wrote among paragraphs of details of care, of action, of dedication. It was the picture of a joyful man beaming into the camera. It was hearing the words of praise and love across the pages and pages of comments on this singular post. I didnt know Stephen, and I saw him as a symbol of whats wrong in America. As an outsider, listening in with my symbolic Pinard horn, I heard a testament to Stephens heart, his joy, his ambitions.
Recent reporting (Gu et al., 2021) makes clear that disinformation about COVID and vaccines has disproportionately targeted BIPOC communities. We also know that Trump was the single largest driver of misinformation throughout the pandemic (Stolberg & Weiland, 2020). And I am reminded of Francesca Tripoldis (2018) research about how Christian conservatives interrogate media messages in the same way they approach the Bible (p. 6). Tripoldi describes this practice as scriptural inference. As a person of color deeply immersed in a loving faith community, Stephen was not the buffoon my group text messages made him out to be. He was uniquely positioned to hold fast to beliefs that may have led to his death and that also led to my friends and me shaking our heads in mockery.
Ive spent much of the past several years of my career as an educator and researcher advocating for healing and for empathy in the teaching profession. My reflection on how Ive come to hear about Stephen has challenged my own assumptions and the blind spots of my occularcentric views as a researcher. How do we open ourselves up to sensing beyond the taken-for-granted in our fieldwork, in our classrooms, and in our day-to-day interactions? The stagnation and reluctance in large communities regarding getting vaccinated in a country overly privileged with access to vaccines look maddening and infuriating. And too I hear the ways genuine fear and disinformation circulate in these same communities. Thats a kind of duality that doesnt show up in my group chat messages. And whats to be done with the duality of plaguing ones medical puericulture (Schneider, 1990) with eugenics while also transforming and improving the pregnancies of countless individuals? For the children I learned to hear alongside on school buses, for my own children beating furious and amplified hearts as they awaited their arrival, and for Stephen Harmon, whose joyful voice I heard only in the echoes of tributes on an Instagram post, I continue to question if we see too much and sense too little.
Brown, B. [brendenbrown]. (2021, July 22). t h e o n e w h e r e . My bro, my friend, my family.. @stephenharmon went to be with the one he loved Jesus! [Photographs]. Instagram. https://www.instagram.com/p/CRorkaGsF4s/
Garcia, A., Robillard, S. M., Suzara, M., & Garcia, J. E. (2021). Bus riding leitmotifs: Making multimodal meaning with elementary youth on a public school bus. English Teaching: Practice & Critique, 20(3), 398412. https://doi.org/10.1108/ETPC-07-2020-0080
Gu, F., Wu, Y., Hu, X., Guo, J., Yang, X., & Zhao, X. (2021). The role of conspiracy theories in the spread of COVID-19 across the United States. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18(7), 3843. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph18073843
Mills, K. A. (2016). Literacy theories for the digital age: Social, critical, multimodal, spatial, material and sensory lenses. Multilingual Matters.
Montgomery, B. (2021, July 22). Man who tweeted about having 99 problems but a vax aint one dies of COVID. The Daily Beast. https://www.thedailybeast.com/stephen-harmon-hillsong-member-who-tweeted-about-having-99-problems-but-a-vax-aint-one-dies-of-covid
Pinard horn. (2021, September 27). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pinard_horn
Schneider, W. H. (1990). Quality and quantity: The quest for biological regeneration in twentieth-century France. Cambridge University Press.
Stolberg, S. G., & Weiland, N. (2020). Study finds single largest driver of coronavirus misinformation: Trump. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/30/us/politics/trump-coronavirus-misinformation.html
Tripodi, F. (2018, May 16). Searching for alternative facts: Analyzing scriptural inference in conservative news practices. Data & Society Research Institute. https://datasociety.net/library/searching-for-alternative-facts/
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