Tone policing: what people mean

Brianne Benness
Sep 10, 2017 · 6 min read

I know too many people who keep quiet about politics and social justice because they’re afraid they’ll say the wrong thing and offend somebody. I bet you know people like that too.

And I’m not an expert on this stuff. I don’t always have the right language to dive into the tough topics that dominate my news feed. But I do have Google, and the determination to find reliable and diverse voices who are already writing about issues that the rest of us need to understand so badly.

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“Calm down so we can discuss this like adults.”

Have you ever tone policed someone in a conversation on oppression? Tone policing focuses on the emotion behind a message rather than the message itself — and you might think you’re helping by making the conversation more “comfortable.”

But in this comic, Robot Hugs makes a great point about how tone policing protects privilege — and silences people who are hurting. This is no way to get justice, and this breakdown will help you understand exactly why.

Go read it all: No, We Won’t Calm Down — Tone Policing Is Just Another Way to Protect Privilege by Robot Hugs

Tone-policing is the act of silencing a person’s ideas and thoughts on the basis of their emotional tone and therefore ignoring the actual content of their message. Tone-policing results in a one-sided or terminated conversation, oppressing the voices of the marginalized. It produces stagnation, not progress; ignorance, not compassion.

Criticizing the tone with which oppressed peoples fight for their rights and respect is a privilege used to excuse the powerful from accepting responsibility and issuing the appropriate restitution. Using tone as an excuse to not listen to people’s views puts the burden of enacting change and promoting activism on the already silenced marginalized communities.

Tone-policing dangerously ensures that the fight for equality becomes solely the responsibility of the oppressed. It unfairly alleviates the responsibility on the powerful to listen to and understand their stories with compassion. It protects the powerful’s privilege by forcing the marginalized to calmly, “rationally,” inform the people in power of their unjust experiences, at the threat of not being heard. Tone-policing only further oppresses the already marginalized by requiring them to refurbish their opinions and stories so that they are more pleasant for the powerful to hear. It thwarts an opportunity for oppressors to recognize and fix their oppressive behaviors by compassionately listening to these emotionally compelling arguments and stories. It forces the oppressed to emotionally separate themselves from their emotionally charged hardships, and it numbs the oppressors from having the compassion to listen. Tone-policing forces people to restrict emotion and compassion, that which makes us most human.

Go read it all: Feminism 101: What is Tone-Policing? by Jacqueline Pei

Tone policing is when members of majority groups focus on the language and perceived emotion of marginalised or underrepresented groups during discussions of inequality. The majority group sees themselves as entitled to infer “illegitimate” arguments based solely on the words being used, rather than the meaning of what is being said. This is an attempt to silence or derail discussions, to shift power away from the lived experiences and knowledge of minorities or disempowered groups.

If White people can’t handle POC talking about racism, it doesn’t matter what words we use; the issue you have is that we’re talking at all. It’s striking; whether it’s my blog, my Twitter, or when I’m interviewed — people say they want to hear “positive” language on racism. Why? There’s no “nice” way to talk about racism. Racism is structural; it envelops us; it ruins the life chances of POC. There’s nothing “positive” about racial inequality.

White people who imagine there’s a “rational” way they deem acceptable to hear discussion of racism is actually them saying they want to dictate how POC express their lived experiences and knowledge of racial oppression. As POC point out all day, every day, White people put more effort into policing discussion of race so they don’t have to work on themselves.

If White people take offence over how POC talk about racism, but actively dismantling racism is not a concern, then they’re part of the problem. White people don’t get to subjectively define racism; they don’t get to silence POC’s suffering and experiences of race. That’s White supremacy.

Go read it all: Tone Policing People of Colour by Dr. Zuleyka Zevallos

People might tone police to purposefully derail the conversation (taking the focus off the oppressive behavior and putting it onto the activist for not responding to the oppressive behavior “correctly.”) Some people tone police because they aren’t personally comfortable with the strong emotions that an activist is expressing. or because they think that we should do things the way they think things should be done, or because they genuinely think they are helping, or for some other reason. It doesn’t matter why they do it, as always, we each get to choose how to deal with this.

If people want to be uplifting and positive all the time they are welcome to do that — it doesn’t work for me. I don’t think it’s realistic or healthy to suggest that we should be disappointed in anyone who doesn’t meet marginalization, discrimination, and disenfranchisement with uplifted politeness — acting like it’s all fluffy bunnies and rainbows. You are allowed to do that, but you are not obligated, no matter what the tone police say. If you look at the oppression that goes on in the world and it makes you angry, I don’t think that’s surprising and I don’t think it’s a bad thing. The more we step out as activists, the more we call out the behavior around us that is seriously messed up, the more we express our anger about it, the more people will become uncomfortable. We are not responsible for other people’s feelings or for being activists on other people’s terms.

We have a right to all of our emotions, including being pissed off. We have a right to all the vocabulary, including swear words. We have a right to all of the types of activism, which includes using anger as a tool. We are not responsible for other people’s feelings and we don’t have to let the tone police dictate the way that we react to, live in, or work to change a messed up world.

Go read it all: Dealing With the Tone Police by Ragen Chastain

A possible side-effect of tone policing is a total lack of emotionality in regards to a statement what should elicit an emotional response. Sounding emotionally detached all the time like a sociopath doesn’t work either. When you lack basic emotionality, your statement registers as not important enough to consider. Remember, the objective is to silence you, so if you totally lack emotion you’re damn near close to true silence. A takeaway here is the understanding that anger is justified when it is in response to oppression and oppressive tactics.

When someone questions anger instead of addressing the issues raised, they are telling you — the marginalized — that you have a responsibility to make them comfortable at all times, as well as stating the facts. White comfort doesn’t trump black lives. Black people live in the “discomfort” of white supremacy their whole lives, and white people get upset when facts on the matter are mentioned? No. Stop. You don’t have to coddle feelings of the colonizer, especially if you are of the colonized, marginalized group. Good is not nice. Nice is only nice enough to ignore.

Go read it all: Thoughts on Tone Policing by Johnny Silvercloud

So go read all of these! And let me know what has helped you understand tone policing (links and powerful quotes also appreciated).

For more roundups, check out my main list of stories. And if you found this helpful, I’d appreciate a clap!

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