A simple Google News search shows that it happens every week.
Someone, or some company, in the public eye makes a bad decision to communicate in an insensitive, inappropriate or even immoral way. Instead of using precise language to call attention to what can be, at best, a mistake and, at worst, a flaw in character, a writer or commentator uses the term “tone deaf” to describe it. That’s just wrong. It’s a case of metaphor turned euphemism turned cliche.
True tone deafness is a disability. Nobody chooses to have it. Nobody veers in and out of it. It’s known to scientists as “Amusia” and is considered a medical disorder. Here’s an extensive article about research into Amusia from The Atlantic.
Just this weekend, Fox Sports announcers Gus Johnson and Joel Klatt were described by critics as “tone deaf” for praising Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer for his “overcoming adversity” and displaying over-the-top sympathy for his “headaches” while barely mentioning domestic violence within his program and the coach’s lies about it. Disability? Or dubious intentional choice in communication?
Another quick search shows the President of the United States has been described as “tone deaf” multiple times in recent weeks for insensitive remarks about the California wildfires, not attending a World War I memorial, accusing an African-American reporter of asking a “racist” question, and an appearance at a Pittsburgh synagogue. Those are all decisions he made, not any kind of medical impairment.
The examples in all facets of coverage are too numerous to list. In fact, in instance after instance, week after week, anyone who violates the cardinal rule of communications, “Know Your Audience,” gets accused of being “tone deaf,” when in reality, they made wrong decisions, whether it be in a PR response, in a tweet or in the production of an advertisement.
The problem with cliches in news coverage and in analysis are they are throwaway terms that don’t add value or real understanding to audiences. In this case, it’s even worse because it lets the violator of communications standards off the hook, instead of demanding accountability.