Hate-music and a shooting
The gunman, a white supremacist named Wade Michael Page, "fed and was fueled by hate-driven music," to quote a New York Times headline, playing in heavy metal groups that used racial slurs for lyrics.
His participation in that sub-culture, operating on the fringe of the fringe, has led experts like Mark Pitcavage, the director of investigative research at the Anti-Defamation League, to point a finger of blame at hate-filled music.
"The message can motivate people to action, cause them to be proud of themselves and their cause," he told the New York Times. "It can aggravate anger levels."
This calls to mind a chicken-or-egg question: Is the music at fault for the man, or the man at fault for the music?
No level-headed person should blame a shooting on a song -- there's a difference, after all, between being aggravated by something, and taking action.
But that same person should recognize that music matters. It changes us in ways we don't understand. Like so many things, we should respect its benefits and be wary of its drawbacks.
The study of music is still in its infancy. Research has found time and again that it leads to changes in brain activity, although the how-and-why is not as well understood.
In his 2007 book "Musicophilia," neurologist Oliver Sacks writes of music's benefits. He says it has momentarily soothed the tremors of Parkinson's disease, helped immobile patients walk and quieted the symptoms of autism.
"Only music, which is rigorous yet spacious, sinuous and alive, can evoke responses that are equally so," he writes.
Very few things only have an upside, of course. Even Tylenol can kill you. So what about music? What harm does it do?
Here, things are even fuzzier. Studies often find that if you listen to violent music, you're more likely to report feelings of hostility, or interpret actions in violent terms. That's not good, but it's not the same as, say, listening to a song and starting a fight.
That brings us back to the Wisconsin shooter and his music.
It's going too far to claim that music incited violence. After all, in Wisconsin, a fan of the singer didn't pick up a gun -- it was the singer himself.
But it's dismissive to say that music is just music, neither good nor bad, when so much evidence indicates its capable of both. And so we need to remember that, when it comes to our own minds, music is not simply white noise.
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