Rethinking Tone Policing

Some of you who have traveled in progressive circles might have heard certain concepts tossed around in conversation, things that progressive, intersectional leftists tend to say. “Tone policing” is one of these concepts.

For those who don’t know, tone policing is a term used to describe a particular kind of behavior a privileged person often will display towards a less-privileged person: it’s when you’re criticized for your anger or loud tone or irritation-level, instead of your argument. It is used as a way to deflect attention away from what you are actually saying; it’s used to derail the conversation. Tone-policing is a problem because talking about race or gender or sexual orientation isn’t just an academic exercise for marginalized people — it’s talking about our lives. These are issues that we inevitably end up getting emotional over, and that emotion is used by the privileged to disregard our point of view. There is a society-wide bias towards those who can argue in a calm, detached, rational manner — and there is widespread disdain of those who are unable to do this. Because it is hard for people of color to talk about racial issues without getting emotional, our points of view are hardly listened to by the mainstream.

Learning what tone policing is was one of those moments that changed my life. I finally had a name for the “you’re too loud” and the “just calm down” comments. I was finally able to place my finger on why this kind of criticism annoyed me so much. I knew why I felt particularly dispirited after someone tone policed me; my emotion was seen as a reason to disregard my point of view, not a reason to engage with it.

Now, the problem with this concept is, of course, that when taken to its logical extreme, it is bullshit. Pure bullshit.

Tone policing is wrong. It’s wrong! It’s so wrong that anything you say in order to check my behavior will be regarded as “oppressive,” and therefore I can, as a marginalized person, say or do anything I want to do. You can’t stop me, because you can’t say anything. As a relatively privileged person in this situation, you have no say at all in how you should be treated.

See what I mean? Without appropriate limits, these kinds of concepts are meaningless. They are useful up until a point, past which a conversation devolves into insanity. People are encouraged, in an environment where tone policing is deemed unacceptable, to run rampant. Cruelty abounds in these kinds of communities, as people feel suddenly free to say whatever they want, to whomever they want. Is the freedom from tone policing really worth genuinely hurting another human being with your words? Isn’t it time to admit that not every expression of your anger is acceptable?

The problem is: where do we place the limits? This concept, by its very nature, resists limitations. In fact, the mere suggestion that a limit be placed on what is considered “tone policing” may in fact be a form of tone policing! There’s no easy answer; the best I can come up with is that each case must be judged on its own merits, that we use a liberal dose of common sense when evaluating these cases, that there is no universal rule that determines when enough is enough.

But limits must be put in place. Some habits of liberalism — like the tendency to always imagine the worst possible scenario when formulating our theories — are useful. We have to plan for each tool we have at our disposal to be abused and misused, and place limits accordingly. When your words begin to do real and concrete harm to another human being, the good that is done by your free expression is outweighed by the bad that is the pain of another human being. That just has to be accepted as the truth. Otherwise, we fall into chaos.

This post originally appeared on Tumblr’s An Edumacation.

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7 thoughts on “Rethinking Tone Policing”

  1. I have feelings about this topic. On one hand, we (all of the people) should try to maintain respectful, considerate conversations on the internet and in person.

    BUT. Sometimes a topic or situation makes a person upset. And sometimes it goes beyond being upset. Sometimes, a topic or situation actively hurts or frightens someone, and they’re less inclined to be “thoughtful” when they talk about it. And that’s okay. If someone who has experienced racism gets a bit hyped up when they talk about those experiences, and has little patience for those who downplay their (the one who’s experienced) perspective because they’re being “rude”, fuck them (the tone police).

  2. Hmmm. This was an interesting read. As someone who has often and continues to be labeled an “angry Black woman” no matter my tone, I’ve found the concept of tone policing to be useful. In my experience I’ve not found the concept leading to “insanity” (which is a descriptor I personally find ableist) or undue abuse from the person being tone policed. More often, I’ve seen the idea of “productive” and “civil” discourse used as silencing mechanisms wherein the rules of “productive” discourse favor and/or are dictated by those in a privileged position WRT the topic at hand rather than the tone argument being used to…cover for abusive tactics on the part of the marginalized person in that context? But, experiences vary.

    1. I’ve seen both. Being a person with a lot of privileges I would really hesitate to not engage with or listen to someone whose tone I found difficult – because if I find it difficult, generally it’s because I need to learn something.

  3. This is awesome. There are definitely quite a few situations where people are absolutely justified in their anger and tone policers need to be told to STFU, but some people use it as a get out of jail free card to just be raging assholes instead of engaging in productive debate. I’ve been a party to any number of internet discussions where someone had a 100% valid point and was absolutely justified in calling someone out for saying/doing something offensive, but went so hard on the attack that there was no way that anyone was able to discuss anything but their tone. They effectively derailed themselves.

  4. Thank you! Tone policing is such a useful concept, but I have seen it used to the point where the person’s perhaps valid argument is buried under such horrendous language that it’s pretty much indistinguishable from a garden-variety troll. I’m all for use of anger and swearing, but online in particular, if you don’t know the person, it can come across as abusive, or at least counterproductive in more than small doses.

  5. This was a really interesting read. For me, I was reminded very much of therapy techniques and that – for instance – for a person to say they won’t engage in conversation with someone that is angry isn’t necessarily a person who is (intentionally or otherwise) being oppressive, but a person who acknowledges their own boundaries for discussion. That’s my perspective on this, but one that is certainly affected by a way of life – therapy and caregiving – in which tone can be so incredibly significant and as such, the boundaries that arise as a result of how tone is treated. Eek. That was something of a ramble! In short: I really enjoyed thsi article!

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