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“Tone policing” is one of those phrases feminists throw around in the hopes that you’ll google it yourself if you haven’t heard of it before. Much has been written about what it is and why it’s busted, all easily accessible at your fingertips thanks to the glories of the internet.

cat at a computer

Glories of the internet include:  1) googling “tone policing”  2) pictures of cats on the internet looking at pictures of cats

Essentially, “tone policing” or the “tone argument” is the practice of responding to an argument by focusing on the way it was said, instead of the actual issue it addresses. Often, it derails the whole conversation, distracting from something that was usually pretty important.

Lucreta identifies two types of tone policing: “I agree with you, but I think you could have phrased it better,” and “I would agree with you if you phrased it better.”

Let’s talk about how these two are different, and what you can do instead:

“I would agree with you if you’d phrased it better”

The vast majority of what’s been written about tone policing focuses on the latter. Those who use “I would agree with you” tone argument are engaging in a logical fallacy: focusing on the way a point is conveyed rather than the point itself.

Obviously the sky is just as blue whether I say “Hey, stupidhead, the sky is fucking blue, you asshole!” or “Excuse me for interrupting, but if I could please have a moment of your time I’d like to suggest that the sky is blue.”

blue sky

You’d have more luck convincing me that’s not orange if you hadn’t called me stupid!

It seems to me like I mostly hear this type of tone argument from people the statement is directly targeting. (“Fuck you, Annie, that costume is racist!” “I would have agreed with you, Billy, if you hadn’t turned to profanity!”)

My own interpretation of the people who engage in “I would agree” tone policing is that they’re feeling defensive. Often when someone points out that something we’ve done is problematic, we respond in two ways: a) we interpret it as more threatening than if we weren’t personally involved and b) we grasp at anything we can to prove ourselves right and others wrong.

It’s a human response. I’ve done it. You’ve probably done it. Almost everyone has- but we can grow out of it by recognizing it when we feel it, taking some time to ourselves to work through it, and coming back to the discussion when we’re past it.

"keep calm and take a breath"

Such a calming shade of green!

Sure, calling someone a stupidhead, or swearing at them, is not the height of persuasive rhetorical tactics, but if you’ve just said or done something dehumanizing or bigoted toward someone else, they might not be feeling super polite. Remind yourself that if you’ve wronged someone, it’s natural for them to feel angry about it. You can’t control their feelings, but you can control your own, take a moment to work through any defensiveness or offense you feel, and focus on the content of what they said to you.

“I agree with you, but I think you could have phrased it better”

Then there are the people who say they agree with a statement, but they insist on turning the discussion toward the way in which it was said.

This kills me, because it totally distracts the conversation from the issue at hand- an issue they purportedly agree with.

guy pointing, text reads "Look! A distraction!"

Marginally less subtle, same effect

I most often see this not from people positioning themselves as a third party. (“Fuck you, Annie, that costume is racist!” “Now Billy, although I agree that Annie’s costume is racist, you’ll never convince her if you use such a mean tone. You should have said it more politely!”)

It may be true that Billy’s outburst won’t persuade Annie, but now our third person (let’s call them Carlos) has made the discussion about Billy’s tone, instead of about Annie’s racist Halloween costume. And that also will never persuade Annie to pick a different costume.

What Carlos could do instead is join Billy in addressing Annie’s costume, but do it in a way that feels authentic and effective for Carlos. (“Fuck you, Annie, that costume is racist!” “Actually, Annie, I agree that your costume is hurtful. The stereotypes you’re referencing have been used as excuses to commit violence against that group. [etc]”)

Essentially, if you agree with someone’s statement but disagree with their tone, take a moment to consider which is the more important thing to discuss. If the statement is about oppression, bigotry, or marginalization, I’d argue that the content is more important. Keep the focus on that.

keep calm and focus on priorities

Such a …prioritized…. shade of blue?

Instead of derailing the conversation into a tone argument, join in the conversation modeling the kind of tone you think will be most effective. There are lots of different ways to say something, and each different way will reach different people at different moments. Adding your voice, and your way of saying something, only increases the chance of reaching more people. So speak up! Just speak about content, not tone.

If you’re looking for some inspiring words to convince you that you should take action yourself instead of critiquing the actions of others, Teddy Roosevelt has you covered:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Whether it’s the “I would agree” type or the “I agree, but” type of tone policing, the moral of the story, which I’m sure you can all repeat with me by now, is this:

Focus on content, not tone!