Content-Deafness: Not Caring About Word Meanings

The opposite of tone-deafness is alluring & dangerous at home and in the world.

Posted Jul 13, 2020

You’ve heard of tone-deafness, for example, someone who sings out of tune, or in psychology, someone who can’t pick up on cues in people's tone of voice. 

There’s an opposite kind of deafness I’ll call content-deafness. You’re highly attuned to the music of what’s said, but not to its meaning. 

You’ve probably experienced it. Maybe you loved how some song made you feel, the lyrics just sounding true even though you don’t actually know what’s been said. Such content-deafness has been parodied, for example in the popular Blues Traveler song, “The Hook,” or Drew Carey’s song about “choppin’ broccoli.” Whole sites are devoted to misheard song lyrics. Weird Al Yankovic put his kids through college on the money he makes distorting anthems so they sound powerful but are silly. 

And then there’s Gary Larson’s classic cartoon of what the master says and what the dog hears: “Blah blah blah Ginger blah blah blah.” Political humorist Jordan Klepper gets Trump supporters to agree with him by challenging them in an affirming tone of voice.

Lewis Carroll author of Alice in Wonderful has a wonderful poem called the White Knight Song, in which a guy keeps asking a stranger what he does for a living and then tuning out on the answer until the stranger complements him, “I thanked him much for telling me the way he gets his wealth, but chiefly for his wish that he might drink my noble health.” 

We all tune out word meanings from time to time. It’s liberating, granting our minds freedom to wander while we monitor tone and just nod our heads sympathetically. There's a severe neuropathological version of it too: Wernicke's aphasia. And then there are versions of content-deafness that are somewhat more elective with wider and more dangerous social implications.

You may have an ex for example, who checked out, stopped listening to the meaning of the words you said. You may have a relative or friend who became part of some movement or cult that seemed to speak in tongues in normal conversation. Their ideas made no sense and yet they spoke with bold self-assurance

You’d ask them reasonable questions and they’d proudly crow more nonsense. That’s a frustrating kind of content-deafness, not only because you can’t connect with the person but because they get arrogant about it. They’ve got the truth. You’re dim for not understanding it. They contradict themselves right and left — right or left — there are political cults that do that on either side of the political spectrum. Their rallying cries are all sound and no sense, like galvanizing rock anthems with nonsense lyrics. To lose people mesmerized by such stuff can make your blood boil. It can feel like willful ignorance and on top of that, willful arrogance. 

Still, it’s not hard to imagine how someone would fall for such nonsense. Imagine someone who is education-deprived. They never got much training in the importance of defining your terms and being logically consistent. But throughout their lives, they heard a lot of advertisements in which the feeling evoked is way more important than the content said. 

Imagine that person ends up a little down on their luck and off in the distance they hear some rallying cry from some political charlatan. It’s alluring. Never mind the meaning of the words. All they hear is the anthem that makes them feel proud, brave, strong, right, righteous, oppressed, deserving of more than they’re getting. 

Yeah! Sounds true, whatever’s being said. Like the Gary Larson dog, they hear, “Blah, blah, blah, good boy, blah, blah, good boy.” Like the guy in the Lewis Carrol poem, their ears perk up at the compliment. 

So they rally behind the charlatan. 

Content-deafness explains a lot about how nations get divided by a common language. Cult members learn how to parrot the words of their movement without paying any attention to their content. All they hear is the connotation: I good, my rival’s bad.  It’s liberating, more power; less thinking. 

With content deafness, one can follow a simple rule: If it sounds positive, it’s about you; if it sounds negative, it’s about your enemies. Call yourself a patriot or Christian simply because those words sound positive. Call your enemies capitalists or communist simply because in your count they sound negative. 

To the content-deaf, words become shibboleths, a term from the bible for a test word used to decide who was and wasn’t acceptable company. Two tribes of Israel, the Ephraimites, and the Gileadites were divided by different pronunciations of “shibboleths” the word for wheat. The Gileadites would ask border crossers to say the word. If they said it the Gileadite way, they passed through. If they said it the Ephraimite way, they were killed. 

Content-free words become like that. If you say you admire things about socialism or conversely capitalism, you’re disqualified automatically in some circles, even in circles where they can’t give an accurate definition for the terms. 

Content-deafness gives rise to rampant hypocrisy too since our languages have plenty of words that mean the same thing but have opposite connotations. Steadfast and stubborn, loyal and cultish, flexible and wishy-washy. The content-deaf can call themselves steadfast and their enemies stubborn. Never mind that they mean the same thing.

Their opponents will call that hypocrisy but the content-deaf won’t see the problem. After all, steadfast and stubborn are completely different. Steadfast is positive; stubborn negative. How could they be more different?  Never mind that they mean the same thing. 

And besides, if your content-deaf, you know you’re not a hypocrite. After all, hypocrite sounds bad. It’s a term that applies to your enemy, not to you. You’re a careful thinker, a critical thinker, honest, only interested in the truth, attuned to the real facts, not the fake news. Why? Again, never mind what those terms mean. They all sound good so of course, they’re about you.

I’ve described this problem at the social and political level here, but content-deafness can become a terrible problem at home too. As tensions rise with a partner, for example, the undefined labels start zipping through the air like offensive and defensive missiles. Partners stop listening to each other. All they hear is their own proud anthems and their partner’s meanness. 

If you find yourself in such a situation, step back and try to restore meaning to the terms you throw at each other. Because if you become content-deaf, you’ll just end up a house divided by a common language. 

Here’s a short video I made about the self-liberating glory of content-deafness: