The banality of tone policing.


Whyyyy are these people so aaaangry??? Whyyyy don’t they just stay home and write letters or something?? I’m sure glad the police is there to tone police them.

Tone policing is a term used on the Internet to designate attempts to curb speech based on its aggressiveness or rudeness. When an aggressive tone is used as a reason to reject an argument, tone policing is simply invalid:

The tone argument is a form of derailment, or a red herring, because the tone of a statement is independent of the content of the statement in question, and calling attention to it distracts from the issue at hand. Drawing attention to the tone rather than content of a statement can allow other parties to avoid engaging with sound arguments presented in that statement, thus undermining the original party’s attempt to communicate and effectively shutting them down.

I’m sure its proponents would reply that the point of tone policing is not to invalidate arguments but simply to make people be more considerate of others, and that ideas must be sold in a way that appeases people (for a similar concept, see “gatekeeper”). The underlying premises are those of groupthink and pragmatism; the proponents want you to identify with the group and its flourishing, and they want you to believe that the end justifies the means. The former is a matter of allegiance, but the latter is false in any case: it is not true that the success of an abstract idea overrides all other ethical concerns.

In what kind of situations should one express an idea aggressively? One type of such situation is when a person is detaching emself from a destructive, repressive worldview. In such a case, the healthiest thing to do is to realize and express the destructive, repressive nature of that worldview in order to heal at a personal level. This is dismissed by gatekeepers as “ranting” or “angry” (as if anger can’t be healthy!).

Another type of situation would be when one is confronted with a clear, incontrovertible evil which one or many people are trying to normalize. In that case being “nice” only makes the situation worse, because it appears as if you’re agreeing that the evil in question is not clear and incontrovertible, but rather worthy of reasonable discussion. One must be aggressive both in confronting and denouncing evil.

Appeasement never works. Nothing morally wrong has been solved by people curbing their rudeness. Minorities and other oppressed groups are always told to curb their rudeness so they’ll shut up, basically. It’s a tactic used to reframe justified anger as rudeness, radicalism as extremism. Anger becomes integrated with the stereotypes we associate with minorities, including black people, feminists, and more recently atheists, and the pressure on these groups to stop being angry becomes not only permanent but internalized as well. It then becomes part of the role of gatekeepers to attack anyone who portrays their group in a “bad light.”

So it shouldn’t be surprising that the whole tone policing process is a huge double standard. Women’s speech is devalued, called shrill or angry when it’s aggressive, and simply rejected when it’s not aggressive enough; men’s aggressive speech, on the other hand, is considered manly and competent.

This has a host of consequences. It means that men bullies get a free pass by virtue of being men. It means that women will be less likely to be forceful and therefore less likely to be acknowledged as competent leaders. It means that women in positions of power are treated as being inferior because they are deviating from their true nature.

And, I argue, you won’t recognize a woman as a potential leader. Not because women can’t or don’t want to be rude — rather, because women are likely to already have been conditioned to be nice, and even if they haven’t, a hypothetical woman who led a major open-source project would never get away with being rude to people the way Linus is…

If you still need evidence that there’s a double standard, there it is. I think what’s happening here is that whatever men do gets defined as being effective, by definition, because they are men. It’s a little bit like how women frequently get describe as “emotional”, but this (often pejorative) label is rarely applied to men who are raging out, because apparently anger isn’t an emotion. (Thanks to Brenda Fine for originally pointing this out to me.) When a guy yells at his team members, he’s “being a leader”, “getting stuff done”, not wasting time with trivialities like being nice. But when a woman suggests that the whole team would be better off without the yelling, she’s “being oversensitive”, “reading too much into it”, wanting to stop everyone from ever saying “fuck” again. She can’t possibly be saying it because she has the best interests of the project in mind — because by definition, women are off-topic.

When women display the necessary confidence in their skills and comfort with power, they run the risk of being regarded as ‘competent but cold’; the bitch, the ice queen, the iron maiden, the ballbuster, the battle axe, the dragon lady… the sheer number of synonyms is telling.
Cordelia Fine, Delusions of Gender

I’ve been talking about how we sometimes need to express ourselves forcefully, especially when confronting evil. Oppressed groups have to not only confront the evils done to them, but have to argue with the privileged people who benefit from those very same evils. This means that there is plenty of opportunity for the privileged to use tone policing against their opponents.

Often, people who have the privilege of being listened to and taken seriously level accusations of “incivility” as a silencing tactic, and label as “incivil” any speech or behavior that questions their privilege. For example, some men label any feminist thought or speech as hostile or impolite; there is no way for anybody to question male power or privilege without being called rude or aggressive. Likewise, some white people label any critical discussion of race, particularly when initiated by people of color, as incivil.

And here’s my real problem with tone policing. No matter how rude someone can be in response to an issue, the rudeness can never be as bad as the issue itself. Swearing at rape apologists can never be as bad as rape. Insulting racists can never be as bad as racism. Tone policing is always a diversion because the real hate is not people being rude on a forum post or blog entry, it’s people excluding and physically abusing others in the real world.

We find this is a universal phenomenon. For example, trans activists throw their rage at radical feminists for being anti-genderists. But it is not radical feminists that are going on the street attacking and killing transgender people, or suing transgender people for using the wrong bathrooms. Genderism is their real enemy, but it is genderism that they defend by attacking radfems. In this they share the problem of being unable to identify the enemy with other subservient groups.

But my point here is that no matter how offensive anti-genderism may be to any transgender individual, it’s still not as bad as the actual harm being done to everyone by genderism in practice. Aggressive speech in the name of virtue may be inappropriate but it can never be evil.

A white student may feel discomfort when it’s pointed out to him how he has benefited from structural racism, but to compare that discomfort to discrimination is a false equivalency. Hurt feelings hurt, but it is not oppression.
Shannon Gibney

4 thoughts on “The banality of tone policing.

  1. Margaret McCarroll May 12, 2014 at 05:25 Reply

    excellent article – gave me lots to think about – thank you!

  2. Michael May 13, 2014 at 14:58 Reply

    Indeed, very useful post. One hedonistic pig told me not to care about justice and truth because these concepts just make people angry *lol*

  3. […] what modern day oppression in a First World nation feels like.  It’s like there’s a shock that a person may sound a little harsh.  The problem with tone policing is that the […]

  4. […] what modern day oppression in a First World nation feels like.  It’s like there’s a shock that a person may sound a little harsh.  The problem with tone policing is that the […]

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