‘If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.’ An old adage we all know well and are quite likely to have used ourselves. There has been much written about the tone argument and tone policing recently, having been linked to debates of feminism, race and politics. We could argue that our old adage has progressed to ‘If you can’t say anything nicely, don’t say anything at all’.
What is a tone argument?
A tone argument is where an individual dismisses, ignores or minimises a statement by claiming it is delivered too aggressively or in a confrontational manner. Someone who uses the tone argument can be identified as a member of the tone police, ‘policing’ the presentation of opinions.
Policing arguments may serve to defend the egos of those who feel they had no intention of offending or upsetting with their perspective on a matter. However, enforcing rules on how we deliver our opinions and values can protect those who are listening to standpoints which differ from their own – and that’s not a good route to go down.
What’s the problem?
But the tone argument is problematic. Firstly – how do you know what is ‘nice for all’? I, personally, am quite comfortable with what I deem to be a passionate reaction against something I have said. It often evokes a rethink on where I stand on a topic, because if someone feels strongly about something, doesn’t that deserve a re-evaluation of my own thoughts?
Secondly, when subjects are relevant and important to someone, surely that indicates there will be emotion present? A friend of mine recently called me defensive and aggressive when I strongly disagreed with a point they had made about how black people are presented in the media. I didn’t raise my voice or swear, features which are often subjected to a tone argument analysis, but I was ardent with my feelings about why they were wrong.
As soon as I was called defensive, the conversation changed. My behaviour was now the subject of discussion. Use of the tone argument is a way of derailing the person who is displaying the emotion and I became very aware of being viewed as the ‘angry black woman’.
Why do people use tone arguments?
Tone arguments are often directed towards groups who are marginalised; ethnic minorities, women or people from lower socioeconomic brackets are often evaluated for how they say things, rather than what they have said. In my argument, I began to question whether I was being reasonable in how I was disagreeing, rather than whether my argument was an accurate one.
In an article on tone policing, a writer claims that “Marginalized people often do not have the luxury of emotionally distancing themselves from discussions on their rights and experiences”. But why should we distance ourselves from an argument? Surely our proximity to an experience can make us an expert, or at least have a significant understanding and accuracy.
During an argument, anger is one of the first things a member of the tone police will call you out on. It is viewed as a negative emotion and a sure sign that someone’s argument should be ignored.
I’ve never been comfortable with anger being described as a negative emotion. In some situations, anger can show that a topic means something to the person who feels angry. When a subject is meaningful to us, we don’t stop and modify the emotions we attach to it, or at least we shouldn’t. We should observe them, question them, even – but modify, no.
Of course, screaming and swearing at someone is not an argument. But a person who argues with feeling and emotion is displaying an investment in a subject. How we feel about things allows us to develop values and opinions; our feelings make us more than a two-dimensional follower.
How to address tone arguments
Those who address the tone of the argument, rather than the argument itself, need to question what it is about the tone that offends them so much. Is it that the tone presented has made you question your opinion? Is it that the tone makes you feel just as attacked as the person presenting the argument? If so, what part of you is being attacked? Is it your prehistoric, poorly-formed perspectives on a subject?
By re-focusing and deflecting the purpose of the conversation, the tone police are side-tracking the speaker and ignoring responsibility for their own reactions to the words. If you get called out on your tone, direct the accuser to their deflection. Bring it to their attention. Question why they have chosen to focus on the tone of your argument, rather than the content of it.
Tone police – don’t tell people how to be angry, help them to express their anger and try to understand it. What can it teach you? Allow yourself to see how a person’s emotion is valid. How we feel about something denotes who we are and that is should not be policed. People’s feelings can’t always be expressed nicely.