A Linguistic Habit We Should Toss

“Biased?” Of Course. We are not capable of neutral observation. Human perception is an instrument of approximation powered by personal experience. It follows that our rhetoric always has ‘tendency:’ personal, political or social. It cannot be otherwise. 

There are many words in our language that have outlived their usefulness, but none more so than that old standby, “biased.” We hear it all the time. ‘People are “biased;’ ‘The story was biased;’ ‘The research has a built-in bias;’ ‘His attitude shows a bias;’ and so on. Someone recently reminded me that another project I am working on is “biased toward the 12-tone system of music.” (Guilty, obviously, but annoyed and unrepentant.) And, of course, a given news outlet is said to be “biased” toward Republicans and another one is biased toward liberals. In any conversation about media, the use of the term can take off like popcorn in a hot pan. And, given the lack of precision that usually comes with the ways it is tossed out, its only one more step to note that the ocean has a bias to flood low shore towns, or that dry forests have a bias toward burning. In the interests of full disclosure, I also have a bias toward food. Can’t kick it and won’t try.

The point of all of this is that the term is mostly an empty word being used as an observation. Even if the term was nailed to the floor in the middle of a room with a spotlight overhead and encircled by a velvet museum rope, I’d still wrench it out and toss it in the trash.  It has gotten to be that irritating as an ostensible insight.

The obvious point is that we are never neutral observers. Humans are not measurement instruments. Human rhetoric always has tendency: personal, political, linguistic, or cultural. It cannot be otherwise. There is simply no way to excise bias from humans using ordinary language and preferred behaviors. We can design instruments for precision.  But, except for mathematicians, its not a value we usually emulate.

The problem here is that the user of the term presumes a purer version of events. But even this presumption has a problem.

Since even hard “data” rarely speaks for itself, we must narrate its meaning in ways that justifiably skew in various possible directions. My office thermometer tells me that is 50 degrees outside. But I’m a member of the jabbering species, so I might interpret this simple data to a friend as a “warm” early spring day. That’s a judgment made in relation to the fact that I’m in the northeast, not balmy Sarasota.

The term “biased” is also used as a blunt instrument of dismissal. There is little going on behind the remark other than the obvious point that someone’s narrative doesn’t match another’s preferred narrative.

This means there is nearly always one simple answer to another’s charge of bias. It is a straightforward “of course,” with an addendum: “Could it be otherwise?”

All of this suggests it would be more intellectually honest to not hide behind this one word.  Go ahead and explain the specific attitude or behavior that is bothersome or seems wide of the mark.

A Last Musical Wish

Few would probably want to listen to a full requiem as their last act, nor would they want to put their mourners through the extended storms of sound that most contain.  What works? 

One wag once offered the view that death was God’s way of telling you to slow down. It’s probably a better joke only for people who have lived a full and busy life. Yet it is an interesting thought experiment to inquire about the kind of music that might be requested from a person about to depart this world. What might they want to hear, if anything? What might we suggest?

So much music is written to acknowledge death, or to celebrate a person’s life. Brahms, Verdi, Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Fauré, and others have written full requiems, or music intended to memorialize the dead. It’s perhaps the least they could do for their mostly private benefactors. The rest of us—if we have such wishes at all—might muse about something closer to home: a piece of music that serves as a kind of summarizing farewell.

This query has some interesting science behind it.  We have evidence that hearing is durable to the very end of life, and maybe even a little further. It is one of the last functions to shut down. Even in dying patients, the brain apparently continues to receive sounds through the auditory nerve.

In the film The Big Chill college friends reunite at the funeral of one of the group who took his life in his 30s. Another helpfully pounds out a version of the Rolling Stones “You Don’t Always Get What You Want” on the church organ. The knowing smiles of the rest suggests a building middle-aged angst that director Lawrence Kasdan used as the film’s theme.

Music as the  Embodiment of a Life

More optimistically, folk legend Pete Seeger seemed to know exactly what he wanted to say in a piece he wrote for a deceased friend. It is a simple ballad that also represents the grace of Seeger himself. The musical tribute he and a choir offer seems just right: a suitable requiem for the Hudson Valley troubadour who died in 2014.

Few would probably want to listen to a full requiem as their last act. One exception might be Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem. The last portion, In Paradisum, is the essence of a musical promise of something better that is yet to come.  It is the sonic equivalent of weightless levitation; anyone should feel renewed by its invitation to let the woes of the world to fall away.

There’s clearly no single right choice for all. My regret about those reaching the natural end of a full life is that health care in this period usually won’t allow a last musical denouement. The sounds of hospitals and medical machinery often dominate. Helpful though they are, they often preclude the sonics of what could be a “good death.”

Though I don’t plan to need it soon, right now I’d select the Sussex Carol by the Choir of Women and Girls of England’s Canterbury Cathedral for sustained listening. Young voices put to the service of familiar music can make magic. Next week the choice will probably be something else.

Folks creating films, dramas and operas often find the right mix of musical elements. Composers have to be good at finding musical benedictions that pull off the miraculous task of converting feelings into sound.