Labeling is Dangerous

In music theory yesterday, we were talking about harmonic analysis, which is mostly what we talk about, but we were discussing the differences in styles of analysis, or more specifically, how we can analyze the music for a deeper meaning. We were specifically talking about the cadential six-four chord, which I mentioned yesterday and my teacher said something that I thought was pretty profound. He said, “only labeling is dangerous. We have to understand what’s happening in the music.”

Right now, in the US, we are having a large discussion about mental health. The Buffalo shooter, who opened fire on a grocery store killing ten people and wounding three others, was evaluated for mental health and suicidal thoughts last year. The shooter in the recent Texas school shooting, who murdered 19 children and two adults before being killed by police, was bullied in school and showed violent tendencies for years before the shooting. A lot of people are calling these boys evil, and perhaps there is some evil involved, but labeling is dangerous, just like my music theory teacher explained.

To label someone as evil allows us to dismiss them as a human. It is understandable that we might want to dismiss a person who would murder others, especially children, but I believe it’s a cop out. Just saying, “well, that guy is evil” classifies him as less than human, something outside of the rest of us, who would never commit such a heinous act. But the murderer is also human. We share many things with the murderer. The murderer has thoughts and emotions, same as we do, but the difference is the action. These two shooter chose to act on their emotions, their thoughts. What I would like to know is why.

How often do you have less than perfect thoughts? Sometimes my crazy thoughts come out of nowhere, telling me to drive off the road when I’m over a bridge (not the place you want your brain to go off on its own). Other times, I can get so angry or frustrated that I have thoughts of revenge. This is true for all humans, whether we want to admit it or not. As the Ben Folds song goes, we are “capable of anything.”

Labeling someone as crazy or evil is unhelpful. It may help in the short run for you to make sense of a tragedy, just like analyzing a chord progression as a I64 to a V. But if we look deeper we can understand what’s happening. We can understand that the I64–V is part of a larger cadence, a cadential six-four, which has a certain feeling and provides us with meaning to the music. We can also understand that a person who decides to murder other humans is also human, and we can start to piece together what might make a human kill another human. Perhaps it is evil. But I don’t believe that’s the whole story.

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