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.