Tone Policing

‘Tone policing’ is the act of focusing on someone’s ‘tone’ rather than their arguments in such a way that it upholds systematic oppression. It includes ignoring someone’s argument or considering it invalid because it was said in a ‘rude’ or ‘angry’ tone. Tone policing derails a conversation, as it focusses on the ‘tone’ of the person who was hurt instead of the issue that made them *feel* hurt to begin with.

Examples of tone policing include dismissing someone’s arguments as ‘overemotional’, rude, angry, not ‘objective’ or ‘calm’ enough, or someone as being ‘mean’ in response to experiencing oppression.

A reason why we have a tendency to tone-police is because we live in a society that values objectivity and shames people for being emotional. But if something affects you directly, it’s unlikely that you have the luxury of being able to emotionally distance yourself from the debate.

The thing is, it’s usually quite easy to be calm about something that doesn’t directly affect you. So, for example, if you’ve never been affected by anti-black racism, it’s likely to be easy to stay ‘calm’ and avoid sounding ‘angry’ in discussions about anti-black racism. So if we only listen to people’s arguments on anti-black racism *if they argue in a calm tone*, what we’re effectively doing is 1) valuing the words of people who don’t experience it over the words of those who do and 2) making people feel bad for having a natural emotional response to experiencing oppression. Of course, this is a major issue because the people who are best equipped to comment on anti-black racism are those who experience it first-hand.

To use an analogy: person A burns their hand on a stove. in response, they scream because it’s painful. Person B comes along and asks why they’re screaming, to which person A says ‘I BURNT MY FUCKING HAND OWW HOLY CRAP IT’S SO SORE’ and person B says ‘wow, don’t overreact, I would have given you burn ointment but you said that in an angry tone so I don’t want to help you any more. If I can stay calm about this, why can’t you?’

We need to respect people’s experiences by not dismissing their pain, and by reminding ourselves that emotion doesn’t invalidate someone’s argument.

More info:

Image by Michelle Avenant

Image by Michelle Avenant


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