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One time on Facebook, my friend Jane made a post about a news item in which she used the literary allusion, “Methinks the lady doth protest too much.” Our mutual friend Brent left a comment on the post asserting that the person in the news article had a right to protest, which was protected by the First Amendment. Jane replied, explaining, “It’s a line from Shakespeare. It’s something you say when someone is acting so defensive, it makes them seem more guilty. ‘Protest’ here just means ardently affirming or denying something.”

Brent responded, “Thanks, Jane. I am now blocking you. Take your condescending attitude somewhere else.”

This behavior sounds patently insane, but Jane and I were both used to it. It’s not uncommon if you’ve ever read a feminist article and decided to visit the hot, swirling tempest of methane gases known as the comment section. Those familiar with this phenomenon call it tone policing. The tone police pop up when even alternative facts are hard to come by that the only way a commenter can act on their own primitive aggression is to angrily insist they cannot, will not thoughtfully consider anything in the article because they don’t like the tone it’s written in. It’s too aggressive! It’s so condescending! They feel too insulted by the article’s timbre to engage with it, even though they’re clearly engaged enough to leave a whiny comment instead of just closing the tab.


There are examples all over the internet. There’s “The Rock Test: A Hack for Men Who Don’t Want to Be Accused of Sexual Harassment,” a tongue-in-cheek essay by Anne Victoria Clarke, written with the cadence of a 1950s instructional film. It suggests with satirical glee that anyone who finds the new, hopefully less harassment-driven workplace to be a minefield of confusing rules and formalities should just picture Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson whenever addressing a female co-worker. And there’s Nicole Silverberg’s piece published in the Guardian last October, “Men, You Want to Treat Women Better? Here’s a List to Start With.” The whole article is just a list of ways that any man who’s read the headline and apparently answered “yes” can help shift culture — particularly workplace culture — away from sexism. Yvonne Abraham’s “Tips on How Not to Be That Guy” in the Boston Globe offers similar suggestions.

Needless to say, the noise emanating from the comments on these pieces about how “condescending” they are is deafening. Hilariously, in addition to the many comments that claim the articles are patronizing for recommending such obvious standards of basic social etiquette (“I’m insulted that the author thinks we need to be schooled on the fundamental tenets of human decency!”), many others call the articles out for making unreasonable, overly entitled demands (“You expect other men in the conversation to cut in and point out that you were interrupted?”). You’d think that at the very least, commenters from Group A would look at those from Group B and go, “Huh, I guess there are a lot of men who do need to be schooled on the basic tenets of human decency, since they’re presently reacting to the suggestions I thought were obvious with vitriolic incredulity.”

There’s an element of satire to these pieces, since each is framed as a sarcastic, no-duh response to the collective complaint that navigating an environment in which sexual harassment isn’t tolerated is soooooo hard. Calm down, these articles say, it’s actually easy. Don’t do these obvious, shitty things. Try to speak up when you see others doing them. Maybe think about whether you actually do some without realizing it. Holy shitballs, what a revelation.

And yet, from the responses, you’d think the authors demanded blood sacrifices. Writing about this issue with situational complexity triggers the segment of guys who now consider their everyday lives to be a fucking minefield. But writing about it broadly to showcase how simple it really is (and sure, to have a laugh at those dummies while we’re at it) gets you labeled as condescending. So what are we left with? I guess we’d better figure it out!


Let’s workshop a few lines from the above articles and see if we can come up with something more palatable to all those frownie-faces. We’ll start with an excerpt from Abraham’s article in the Globe. She writes:

Women’s breasts — even large ones — do not exist for your entertainment in the workplace. Do not talk to a woman’s breasts. Make eye contact during conversations, even with women you find attractive.

First, let’s make it less rigid and judgmental, for the dudes who find this new reality so jarring and draconian.

Breasts are certainly distracting. When they’re present, it’s hard to look at anything else. Even still, it really would be super helpful if you would please consider trying to not stare at the breasts of women you work with — even the attractive ones.

That helps. But now the readers who find it condescending will be even more triggered. We need to rephrase the tip so the readers who insist everyone knows this already will feel more comfortable. How can we change the tone so those folks can willfully ignore the fact that if this many women are having these experiences with men on a constant basis, then there must be a lot of men out there who need to hear this?

Breasts, right? Women grow them just to fuck with you. DON’T FALL FOR IT.

Perfect!


Now let’s try a line from Silverberg’s article in the Guardian. Her piece consists of 28 suggestions — we’ll rework a selection of four.

Don’t make misogynistic jokes.
Don’t expect women to be “nice” or “cute” and don’t get upset when they aren’t those things.
Don’t make assumptions about a woman’s intelligence, capabilities or desires based on how she dresses.
Pay women as much as you pay men.

Okay, first things first! We need to soften it up for the incredulous readers.

Some people don’t understand the phrase “just a joke.” It’s not you, it’s them!
Women sure aren’t as attractive when they act all serious. Don’t they care??? Oh well. Your life will be easier if you just go with it!
Shockingly, the top performers in the workplace can be women who dress nicely or provocatively — or even badly! Use this secret to your advantage and ignore fashion when dealing with your team.
The pay gap is a great tool to save cash. But technically speaking, it isn’t fair. You may want to consider this when it comes to payroll.

Great. Now to remove the condescension.

We both know what’ll happen if you tell that joke about the nun on the airplane. Avoid the trap!
What’s worse than dealing with Ms. Serious on a work project? Dealing with Ms. Serious at an HR grievance hearing!
[Joke about a female co-worker in a fitted top being a booby trap lol]
WTF do they even need all that money for?!?!

Awesome! Now we’ll try Clarke’s essay about picturing the Rock. One scenario she describes as a good moment to imagine you’re talking to Dwayne Johnson reads:

Oh shoot! She’s pretty! In the face, even. What to do?? I mean, you know it’d be inappropriate to treat the coffee meeting as a date, since her clearly stated intentions were professional. But on the other hand, she’s blonde, and so was your last girlfriend! This is so confusing! What a minefield you are in.

This one will be tricky. The essay’s extra-satirical premise makes it hard for us to make the tone any nicer or softer than it already is. But let’s give it a shot anyway!

As soon as you agree to the meeting, a burning sensation eclipses your heart chakra, enveloping your soul in the miserable knowledge that your kindest intentions have once again been despoiled by the impassable ravages of a world gone mad.

Great! But how do we make it less condescending?

“FUCK YOU, MOM!”

I think we’ve got it!


Honestly, what blows my mind most about tone policing is that, going back to Jane’s Hamlet reference, so many assholes bent on engaging in schoolyard politics manage to forget that the first rule of Playground Fight Club is don’t freak out. People who are confident that they’re truly dealing with nonsense may get frustrated, but they definitely don’t schvitz and stomp and declare the aggressor’s untoward manner is giving them the vapors like an entire population of babies bred from a cross-pollination of Scarlett O’Hara and Daffy Duck.

Aw fuck, that probably sounded really mean. I guess we’d better workshop this conclusion. How’s this?

People don’t tone police articles because they’re right; they do it because they know they’re wrong. They do it because they feel so guilty, so nakedly called out by the behavior described in the piece that they fumble even in the pursuit of a straightforward denial, unable even to shift their bulging eyes around the room as they grimace and loosen their tie, sweating profusely and muttering, “Gee, you don’t say? Wow, there sure are, uh, a lotta jerks out there…”

Hmm. That’s good, but it could still be seen as condescending. How about this?

Misogynists are hurtful, but they’re hurting too, brainwashed by the same system we’re fighting, a system that tells them they’ll be worthless if they feel any emotion except unearned cockiness or rage, terrified deep down that women want to subjugate men the same way men have spent millennia subjugating women. In time, they’ll see that equity benefits us all.

Perfect.