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.