Tone Deaf: Our Favorite New Pretentious Complaint

Mar 31, 2020

Since the beginning of the pandemic, “tone deaf” has emerged as the hot new go-to complaint. Granted, “tone deaf” isn’t entirely new. We’ve met before. For the last several years, “tone deaf” was the shy clever girl who only stepped off the sidelines to hit the dance floor when she really liked the song the DJ was playing— but now, “tone deaf” is everywhere and fabulous. So move aside, “sexist.” Sorry, “homophobic.” Deal with it, “toxic.” It’s time for “tone deaf” to shine.

“Tone deaf” is primarily a criticism of rich celebrities whose ostentatious displays of wealth on social media strike us as petty and selfish in the midst of our suffering. These celebrities have always been petty and selfish, but the coronavirus has put the internet into a more austere and self-pitying mood than usual. Lately, we’ve been working less and thinking more. Without sports, bars, Tinder dates, and IMAX films to distract us from the banality of our lives, we’ve even been thinking more about the concept of shallowness and decided that many of our idols are nothing more than unfeeling wood and stone. Us Weekly never appears so vapid and heartless as it does when you’re flipping through a copy in a doctor’s office, waiting for the results of a cancer screening. But now we’re all in the waiting room. Of course, this is also a time for accusing politicians and large corporations of being tone deaf— really, anyone who is rich and powerful is open to the accusation. While standing in line at the post office today, a deranged man loudly made jokes about needing to cough. No one accused him of being tone deaf. To accuse a poor person of being “tone deaf” is to become tone deaf yourself.

From whence came this neologism?

One could search classic literature long and hard for a critique similar to that of being “tone deaf.” In the works of Augustine, Dante, and Calvin, readers find that great intellectuals regularly accuse their foes of heresy, blasphemy, madness, foolishness, covetousness, cupidity, and indolence— but there is nothing so touchy, so effete, so downright petulant a charge as “tone deafness” to be found in their work.

When Marie Antoinette heard the French had no bread and rejoined, “Let them eat cake,” the problem was not that her comment was “tone deaf,” but that it was heartless, arrogant, and spiteful. Of course, these are difficult critiques to make on social media, for social media was invented for the express purpose of helping people become more heartless, more arrogant, and more spiteful. Thus, social media has created the need for a way of harping and whining about the rich and powerful in a way that does not invoke a belief in virtue, lest we prove hypocrites. Having operated a Facebook account for over a decade, I can tell you from an insider’s perspective that using social media to accuse someone else of being arrogant is like climbing to the top of a thousand foot golden statue one has built in honor of himself and shouting down at those below, “How dare you!”

The man who is accused of being “tone deaf” has not, say, knowingly shown up at a funeral dressed in a Batman Halloween costume. That analogy will not do. Rather, it is the very person who accuses another of being “tone deaf” that is a good bit like some spoiled 17th century French prince who complains that the balloons at his birthday party are “too round,” then whines they are “not round enough” after a little air has been carefully extracted from each. The accusation of “tone deafness” is a bratty, bored indifference to truth and facts. It is a demand that everyone’s mood suit my mood— not my real mood, just the highly cosmetic, virtue-signaling mood I perform on social media.

Modern men care very deeply about tone. Such concern goes hand-in-hand with our endless thirst for flattery.

In a prior age, “tone” was a minor concern of rhetoric teachers, but that’s it. No one grumbles about “tone” in the works of Homer or Virgil. No one carps about “tone” in the Divine Comedy. The writers of the Old Testament are curiously silent about tone— imagine Moses writing, “said God sullenly.”  Or, imagine Luther hearing out Eck’s arguments at Worms and opening his rebuttal with, “Well, I’m sure Mr. Eck made some fine points, but honestly, I couldn’t discern them due to the unfortunate shrillness of his tone,” at which point the Keystone Cops would show up in court, led by the fearless but foppish Capt. Winsome. Really, tone became an obsession when dilletantes took over, which is exactly why internet arguments cannot take two steps forward without someone clutching his pearls and making a scene about his opponent’s tone. If you would speak to the master while he sits on his social media throne, you must bow thrice before opening your mouth.  

I am not suggesting that everyone who has ever been accused of tone deafness is innocent altogether, but I would say that tone deafness is a peevish, self-important thing with which to charge anyone. What we call “tone deaf” might be arrogance, hubris, or vanity— but if that’s what the tone deaf man is really guilty of, then we ought to have the guts to define his vice in more precise terms. Really, “tone deaf” just means “not zeitgeisty enough.” It means “not on the right side of history”— if we take “history” to mean nothing more than “how we have felt for the last 48 hours.” As sojourners on this earth and citizens of another World, Christianity is always going to be tone deaf. 

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs teaches online classes at GibbsClassical.com. He is the author of How To Be UnluckySomething They Will Not Forget, and Blasphemers. His wife is generous and his children are funny.

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

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