If we are to add "retard" to our list of abusive words to avoid, why is it still respectable and even commendable to use "tone deaf" as a synonym for moral dereliction, as in "tone deaf to ethics," "tone deaf to faith," and so on? While I'm on the subject, why are tone deaf people who aspire to sing guilty of the deadly sin of pride and deserving of public humiliation, whereas wheel-chair bound people who aspire to race show the Triumph of the Human Spirit and deserve cheers and Special Olympics? Would it be that much out of order to suggest a few singalongs for us tone deaf who, as Dr. Oliver Sacks points out in MUSICOPHILIA, often love to sing?
Tone deafness is a wildly misunderstood handicap -- so misunderstood that it can take many years for those of us born with it to understand that we even have it. It is NOT hearing the world in monotone. It is being unable to hear the difference between "in pitch" and "off key." I might perhaps compare it with an inability to fine-tune the sense of pitch. In our own ears, we sing as well as most people outside the realm of opera; and we live in an era which tells us to "Believe in Yourself," even when it means putting your own opinion above that of critics. I have never watched "American Idol" and never intend to watch it; but if what I hear of it is true, then I hold the people in charge of searching out hopefuls and airing videos of substandard contestants completely responsible for victimizing tone deaf people.
In my own childhood innocence, I thought that "carrying a tune" meant going up and down in the right places and to the right degrees -- I have apparently always had pretty accurate hearing for intervals. But after half a century of playing flute and other instruments, frequently in some school or community band or orchestra, I still have no more than an intellectual grasp of the concept of staying "in pitch" -- it has something to do with the key signature. My husband once devised a home test which indicated that the trouble is mainly in my left ear (which in more general tests shows the stronger hearing), and that my right ear seems to hear tones pretty accurately. I suppose that I hear every tone as a chord, which could be why fancy harmonizing causes me to lose the melody line completely. While I appreciate that I cannot hear music as richly as my husband heard it, nevertheless I hear enough to love it deeply, at least in its operatic and pre-Twentieth Century forms. At the same time, it clearly takes more to outrage my ears than it does someone cursed with "perfect pitch."
Well, doesn't it stand to reason that if we tone deaf people couldn't hear music at all, we wouldn't even want to sing, and there would be no problem?
Obviously, "tone deaf" is not the best term for our disability; but I have not yet met a better one. "Tin ear" is to "tone deaf" as "nigger" is to "Negro." "Tonally challenged" in today's climate sounds like a parody. "Tone deaf" is at least comparable to "color blind," which generally refers to an inability to differentiate between only a couple of colors.
Tone deafness is not a voluntary condition. I imagine that it is usually if not always genetic. I try to avoid using any terms that might offend other people; but the more tender we grow about everyone else, the more we hurt those people (e.g., the tone deaf, Gypsies, Wiccans) who remain respectable targets for contumely and insult.
I'd like to propose a sort of umbrella to cover everyone: BAOOPP -- Be Aware Of Other People's Problems. Whenever tempted to badmouth any group, even in terms of casual comparison, stop and think how you would feel if one of the particular groups to which you yourself belong were spoken of in the same way. This isn't "political correctness," it's simple good manners.