Tone it down

By Beth Ryan

Tone Policing.  Please stop doing that.

tone focus

Yellow background with a cartoon police officer holding his hand up. The text reads: I’m wrong. So let’s focus on your tone.

What is tone policing?
I’ve created some examples based on what I see people saying.  Often.  Too often.  Tone policing doesn’t just apply to Autism Speaks discussions.  But that’s what’s on my mind lately.

Example 1:
Person A:  Autism Speaks is a horrible organization which promotes the hatred of Autistic people.  Giving your money to them is funding a hate organization.  I am Autistic and you’re financing hatred of me.
Person B: I agree with you but people are just going to dismiss you as cranky and angry if you take that approach.  You need to gently educate people if you want them to listen to you.

Example 2:
Person A:  You shouldn’t support Autism Speaks because only 4% of its budget is used to provide direct services to Autistic people.  Autistic people are excluded from meaningfully participating in the organization as leaders and in the organizations efforts.  Further, the co-founder of Autism Speaks, Suzanne Wright, recently wrote an op-ed which promoted bigotry of Autistic people.
Person B: I agree with you but why do you need to say negative things about Autism Speaks?  Can’t you be for positive things without being against Autism Speaks?  It would be better if everyone just let all organizations do their own thing.  Concentrate on what you’re for instead of spending your time and energy on what you’re against.  You need to move on and be positive.  And stop being so angry.

Example 3:
Person A:  I can’t believe that you gave Autism Speaks money after you’ve seen all of the harm it does.  Autism Speaks is horrible.  It dehumanizes Autistic people like me.  Parents should be aware of how evil this organization is.
Person B:  You’re so angry and hostile.  I don’t want my Autistic child to be anything like you.  Why don’t you mind your own business?  Your hostility is dividing the community and if you keep acting like that, we will never be able to work together.

  • Tone policing is derailment.  It shifts attention away from the topic and content.  Often that is the objective of the person doing the tone policing because he/she is attempting to take the focus off of what he did wrong.
  • Tone policing often attempts to invalidate/diminish a valid argument because the victim is angry/emotional/passionate/negative.

Tone Policing Observations

  • I cannot think of a time when I have seen a person who is doing the tone policing also be the person who is right.  Probably because when you are actually right, you don’t have the need to shift the argument away from the topic.
  • Victims of tone policing are often the victims of oppression.  Aggressors of tone policing are often people in a position of power/privilege

You’re too angry to be right!

  • A person’s emotions–his anger, his passion, etc.  have not one thing to do with whether or not he is also correct.
  • Expecting a person who is or has been victimized to talk unemotionally about the topic of his victimization is incredibly inhuman and unreasonable.

Let’s think about the absurdity of tone policing in the context of a rape victim and rapist.

Rape Victim:  You’re a horrible person.  What you did to me is wrong.  I hope you get put in jail for the rest of your miserable life.
Rapist:  You are so angry and overly emotional.  How do you expect me to have a discussion with you when you can’t control your emotions?  We can talk about this when you’re more calm and less negative.

Can’t you be more positive, constructive, less negative, etc?

  • There is something really disingenuous and unkind about demanding that people be positive about things.  Everything is not always positive.  Demanding people frame it as such is dismissive.  Especially when we are talking about people with privilege making the demand of people without privilege.
  • Negativity is often necessary.  You cannot build an argument for why something is wrong, evil, in need of change, (a hate group) without pointing out the negative.
  • In order to be constructive, it is often necessary to be destructive first.  I cannot build a new house on a lot where a ramshackle one sits unless I deconstruct the old one. Getting a permit to demolish the old structure may require that I prove that it is not salvageable, dangerous, a public hazard, etc.

For the “you’re right but…..” crowd

  • When you agree with someone, don’t tone police them.  It is not helpful to propagate the belief that a person’s emotional state is relevant to how valid his argument.  By discussing emotion instead of addressing the issue, you are derailing.  It is possible to unintentionally derail.
  • Hearing another person speak passionately and emotionally about a topic can make us feel uncomfortable.  However, we should not expect people–especially victims of wrong-doing to take responsibility for making us feel more comfortable and advocate for change.  This is a selfish request/expectation.
  • Often, one of the reasons a person is angry is because he tried asking politely/unemotionally/whatever and was ignored.  Don’t assume that a person hasn’t already tried asking nicely.
  • Some people are unwilling to separate the anger from the content of the message. That’s unfortunate.  If you believe a person is correct, don’t add your voice to those focusing on tone because that is not helpful and only serves to lend credit to those trying to derail.
  • If you want to be helpful, encourage those perseverating on tone to address the actual argument.  Signal boosting the points of the angry person in a “nice” tone can also be effective in reaching those that are incapable of understanding the composition of an angry perspective.

Anger is effective

  • We’ve all heard about the squeaky wheel and the grease.  And it is true in many cases…especially civil rights.  Civil rights have not, historically, been granted to those that are just so darn persistent in making polite requests.
  • Angry/emotional people are typically the ones most invested in the topic.  If those people are excluded from participation on the grounds of tone/emotion, that is pretty much a guarantee of failure to effect change.  Further, it is unfair to expect those who have the most at stake to sit out because they can’t play nice.

So tone policing.  Stop it.  Okay?  And also read this post by Chavisory’s Notebook because it is better than mine.

19 thoughts on “Tone it down

  1. Yes!! This is so well put. Thank you! I think this also applies to word policing, though it isn’t as temporally relevant (not really with the Autism Speaks debacle at least). It crushes me when people tell me not to use certain words because they are offensive because it assumes I haven’t tried nice, polite, “correct” words first. I choose my words wisely, even when I offend. And I choose my tone with the same care! I appreciate your attention to listening to ALL aspects of communication. 🙂

  2. Trying to avoid Godwin’s Law: some issues just provoke such strong feelings of anger and hatred that any person who is directly affected, or who has any empathy for those affected, would understand. As you say, passion can be mistaken for anger. But sometimes there is genuine, justified anger. Expressing this is natural and, to my mind, takes nothing away from the point being made. In fact it emphasizes the point by demonstrating the depth of feeling. Anger against an organization that has a stated mission to eradicate your kind is quite a restrained response. As is anything short of marching up to their doors bearing burning torches and loaded firearms.

    As Martin Luther King said, “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.” Bowing down to tone policing is passively accepting the evil.

  3. I wish I had known what tone policing was a couple years ago. I had people whom I thought were friends tone policing me over pretty much anything just because they disagreed with me. “Stop complaining!” they would say. I finally managed to break myself away from their negativity and I don’t regret it for a second.

    Tone policing is bullying and harmful. Thank you for writing this and bringing awareness to the subject.

  4. Reblogged this on Walkin' on the edge and commented:
    Tone policing, to put it simply, is THOUGHT policicing – basically saying “what you say/how you say it is making ME uncomfortable, so YOU need to stop so I can be comfortable again”. Um, no.

  5. Oh my goodness, YES!

    Can I tell you, even in the Down syndrome community, how many times I have been called “divisive”, “angry”, “too radical” and even “dangerous”, “a bully” and “untrustworthy” as I tend to plainly state prejudices where I see them (even within the aforementioned ‘community’)? I don’t buy into the kum-ba-yah mentality of “we all have to get along” and having to “tone it down” when it comes to people being treated as… well, people. When you don’t write fluff about sunshine and lemonade and splashing in puddles and angels and superheroes and magical chromosomes, the message somehow becomes invalid.

    If I hear “you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar” one more time, I might scream. But I won’t.

    I also know that in reality that apple cider vinegar catches more bugs in *my* kitchen.

    Sharing this… all over the damn place. Well done.

  6. Reblogged this on ischemgeek and commented:
    One of the best descriptions of tone-policing and why it’s wrong that I’ve seen in a long while. Tell me, could you talk unemotionally about a traumatic event? No? Then why demand it of me?

  7. Pingback: REBLOG: Tone it down | Ever So Gently

  8. Let’s think about the absurdity of tone policing in the context of a rape victim and rapist.
    I hope this doesn’t sound like tone policing, but people who have been raped might be offended at the above sentence since they prefer the term ‘rape survivor’, especially those whose rapes were violent but which they managed to live through.

  9. Tone policing is a covert-aggressive way of silencing undesirable voices. At a deeper level, it devalues the silenced by putting them in their place (which is beneath the silencer). Finally, it says to the one silenced, ” You must only say what I wish you to say, and that when and if I wish you to say it – and the whole for my reasons alone.”

    In short, tone-policing is an act of Narcissistic abuse which relegates the abused to the role of a Narcissistic extension.

  10. On the other hand, I think we’ve all seen the people who are making an argument that doesn’t actually fit reality, and are being abusive to deflect away from the fact that they don’t actually have a good argument. Those people deserve to be called on their abusive behavior, even if it ends up sounding like tone policing.
    (I was the target of someone like that recently, on a different topic.)

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