My beloved mother (may she rest in peace) was literally tone-deaf. To stand next to the woman in church, singing familiar hymns, was to endure an arpeggio of aural agony. Mom warbled up and down musical scales with both enthusiasm and tonally oblivious abandon. She went sharp when the hymnal asked for a solemn note, and swooped down flat when the tune called for a more uplifting pitch.
It wasn't that my mom had a bad voice … in musical parlance, she had a bad ear. She simply had no way of determining the subtle differences in musical tone that make all the difference in musical expression. The result was uniquely awful, but because mom loved to sing — and everyone loved her — the rest of us just turned up the volume and shared her joy in the music by literally drowning her out.
That's how you deal with tone-deafness in a musical group setting.
However, the term "tone-deaf" has, in recent years, taken on a more metaphorical meaning relative to social behavior, and the fix seems not quite so simple. To be "tone-deaf," in modern parlance, is to be callous, careless, even cruel, toward one's fellow beings.
Take just a few examples:
Recently, the president of the United States and the first lady styled their visits to hurricane-ravaged parts of the country like fashion shoots. Shortly after, President Trump lobbed paper towels at American citizens desperate for clean drinking water and medical supplies. Many people were suitably offended by this showing; the Trumps, on the other hand, couldn't understand the uproar.
The sublimely affluent pastor of a Houston, Texas "megachurch" neglected to open his doors — and his heart — to homeless hurricane victims, until he was called out in the press. Suddenly — surprise! — Joel Osteen changed his tune.
The wife of a State Department official posted pictures of herself de-planing a government aircraft wearing (and waving) high-priced designer clothing after a fast visit to one of the country's most impoverished states. Faced with public disapproval, the dilettante in question doubled down by engaging in social media warfare with an Oregon mother of three, ironically mocking her critic at length for being "adorably out-of-touch."
A less recent example comes in the form of a supercilious quote often attributed to 2004 presidential candidate John Kerry about plebeian American love for car racing ("Who among us doesn't love NASCAR?"). The accuracy of the quote, first included in a column by Maureen Dowd, has since been called into question. But whether or not he said it, such perceived tone-deafness may have caused Kerry to lose the hearts and minds of many Americans.
These are just a few examples of social "tone-deafeness." But the concept (if not the phrase) stretches back as far as 18th-century France. It may not matter that Marie Antoinette, queen of France, never actually said "Let them eat cake" in reference to the starving peasants of her country. It suited the political mood of the times to ascribe to her a similar statement made by a ruler who died over a century earlier. (In fact, before she was beheaded during the French Revolution, Queen Marie was noted for her generous philanthropy and concern for the poor of her country.)
Yes, social tone-deafness — the insensitivity and hypocrisy of it — can be absolutely maddening. On the other hand, sometimes perfectly decent people accidentally strike a bad note.
A couple of weeks ago, before the blood on the streets of Las Vegas had dried after a mass shooting there left 58 people dead and more than 500 injured, an acquaintance of mine posted on social media about her daughter's air-riflery team's championship with the comment, "Killing it!!" along with several pictures of the young athletes in question posing with their impressive (but harmless) weapons slung over their backs.
Questioned about the timeliness of such a post and its wording, she responded: "Oh, my God, no!" she replied. "I didn't think. I'm just proud of the girls."
This woman is a lovely, thoughtful person; the antithesis of metaphorically tone-deaf. She changed her post. No harm; no foul.
Here's the crux of this issue: Some social tone-deafness is simply coincidental. Like actual tone-deafness, it can be addressed, and fixed. Some social tone-deafness is more deliberately hypocritical and obtuse. The rest of us may wince, but we have no power to change the perpetrators, because they really don't care to change their tune.
The best we can do is band together, raise our voices in a proper and powerful pitch, and drown out the sour notes.