Katherine Cross has written an excellent piece on distinguishing legitimate from illegitimate tone policing: Words for Cutting: Why We Need to Stop Abusing The Tone Argument. The article is a valuable read all through. Do not regard my summary here as its replacement. My aim is only to expand on it.
Cross makes two overarching points. One is that though intention is not magic, it does matter (as she says, it’s still data). And we should acknowledge that. I shall have nothing to say about that; it’s obviously correct (see Dan Fincke). The other is that while it is legitimate to denounce tone policing in many cases (and not only because it’s a fallacy), this should not become a non-circumstantial rule that applies to every instance, as if all tone policing were bad. It’s not.
Within that overarching point she makes the following supporting points:
- Tone policing someone who is defending the oppressed or victimized is often illegitimate. Because when someone does that, “while they claim to be attacking tone, they are actually attacking the message, and often as not the very identity of the messenger.” This is thoroughly explained at GeekFeminismWiki. In these cases, tone isn’t really the issue. It’s just being used to silence someone or avoid addressing the point they are making. And that’s wrong. If you try to do that, you deserve to get called out on your shit. Own it. Then stop it. And do better in future. (I think this can also be done in ignorance—not just as a deliberate tactic, but out of not appreciating the context that evokes a particular tone, as I noted in the case of JT Eberhard’s attempt to tone-police Bria Crutchfield two years ago.)
- Anger and other so-called negative emotions are important and have tremendous personal and social utility (without which, see Miranda). Anger is not irrational. Anger is data and motivation. You can be angry for irrational reasons. But not all reasons to be angry are irrational. Nevertheless, as Cross says, “like any emotion or tool, there are right and wrong ways to deploy it.” Thus, calling someone out for (let’s say) calling for sexists to be killed (even in jest) is not an illegitimate tone argument. That is a fully legitimate tone argument. If you are doing that, your tone is fucked. Sort that shit out.
- Genuinely censurable tone can include threats, ill-wishing, calls for violence, ad hominems, or just plain abuse (see my article The Art of the Insult & The Sin of the Slur for more on that last point).
In short, in Cross’s words:
To put it simply: sometimes someone is being too angry. Sometimes an activist’s rage is doing more harm than good. Sometimes there is no good being done by it whatsoever. Not every emotion we have is a great strike against oppressive forces. Sometimes you are just being too loud, abusing people verbally, triggering them, and so forth. Sometimes you are just being a jerk and your tone is a fairly reliable indicator of this.
Quite. There are some things I think that could be added, though… [Read more…]