Tone Policing 101: What It Is, Why It’s Problematic, Why You Shouldn’t Do It

If you’re a woman or femme passionate about politics, social justice, the legal system, or human rights, you’ve probably heard something of the following variety before:

“You’re so angry. If we could just discuss this calmly, like adults, this conversation could maybe go somewhere.”

“I can’t even hear what she’s saying! Her voice is so shrill! ”

“We’ve lost all semblance of civility in debate these days. If you could learn to tone it down, you’d attract more flies with honey.”

“What’s the big deal? Why are you being so hysterical right now?”

There’s a term for this: tone policing.

Tone policing is an “attempt to detract from the validity of a statement by attacking the tone in which it was presented rather than the message itself.” 

It’s a classic ad hominem attack, if you’re a logical fallacy aficionado. Rather than reasoning through an argument, a person who tone polices derails the conversation by focusing on the tone or emotion of the deliverer.

Tone policing is a tactic of the privileged that deflects attention away from the injustice at the heart of the conversation and refocuses the discussion on the style of the complaint.

At its core, tone policing, is a method of control by the privileged. By re-centering conversations around a privileged person’s feelings (read: discomfort), tone policing effectively communicates to the person expressing their oppression that: “Your oppression doesn’t matter. Be quiet.”

The purpose of tone policing is to silence an opponent and/or derail the conversation.

Directing the discussion away from the topic of a person’s lived oppression by calling out their tone is, often, insulting enough to end the conversation or serve as a distraction. Telling someone to “calm down” rarely serves its supposed purpose; in fact, it usually does the opposite. In this predicament, the person describing their oppression has, essentially, two options: be quiet or defend themselves. Either way, the topic at hand, their subjugation, is ignored.

Tone policing assumes that to be heard, oppressed people must distance themselves from their emotions.

It assumes that emotions and rationality are mutually exclusive.  

It assumes that it is the obligation of the oppressed to educate and persuade the privileged of the validity of their oppression.

For example, I recently had a conversation about the representation of  women, specifically, women of color, in the publishing world with a friend and a total stranger at my neighborhood pub. The stranger joined an earlier conversation of ours, which eventually drifted into books. I described my 2017 new year’s resolution to read a certain number of books by the end of the year, all by women (to include trans), femme, or nonbinary authors, with a strong emphasis on women of color.

The stranger informed me that my resolution was sexist.

Annoyed, and in no mood to educate yet another strange man on the basics of sexism, I did it anyway.

But — I was annoyed and that was clear in my tone.

Throughout the conversation, and after the stranger left, my friend let me know that my tone was exasperated and ineffective. The flies and honey analogy was provided.

He was right; I was probably all of those things. But the fact remains that I conveyed a message that was true regardless of tone. It makes me wonder if the argument had been delivered via emotionless statistics, in Times New Roman font, on a crisp white piece of paper, would this stranger have embraced the notion? My gut tells me no.

When your humanity is so unimportant that any effort to communicate it is overriden by calls for a change in tone, you understand more clearly that it’s not your tone: it’s what you’re saying.

In refocusing the conversation on my tone, and not the issue at hand, my entire point — that women, femmes, and nonbinary folks are underrepresented in publishing, and that people should make concerted efforts to read content from people other than cis, white, male writers — was completely ignored.

Tone policing is frequently directed at women, people of color, or anyone on the lower rung of the privilege ladder.

America has a long history of tone policing women and our reasonable emotions that accompany a lifetime of oppression. Remember all the conversations America media had about how “shrill” Hillary Clinton sounded during the 2016 Presidential Election? Or perhaps you’ve heard of the “angry Black woman” trope?  Or the classic “women are too emotional” line?  Or more recently, when Kamala Harris was labeled “hysterical” in her questioning of Attorney General Jeff Sessions by former Trump advisor, Jason Miller? 

People who engage in tone policing often conflate the discomfort caused by a person ardently communicating the dangerous realities of oppression, and the discomfort caused by the emotions of a dangerous or virulent person.

Tone policing places the immediate emotional comfort of the privileged over the reality of the other person’s marginalization.

Passionately communicating the facts of living under subjugation is not synonymous with a malicious attack on another’s humanity.

People living under oppression have a right to be angry. Oppressed people’s lives and livelihoods are at risk — every day. It is unreasonable to expect someone to discuss their marginalized experience free of emotion,  particularly when it’s a daily reality and is life-threatening.

In the words of activist and writer, Audre Lorde, My response to racism is anger. I have lived with that anger, ignoring it, feeding upon it, learning to use it before it laid my visions to waste, for most of my life. Once I did it in silence, afraid of the weight. My fear of anger taught me nothing. Your fear of that anger will teach you nothing, also.”

Of course, there are people who prefer to communicate without engaging their underlying emotions. What’s important to remember is that a person who communicates with or without emotion is not any more or less valid in the communication of their oppression. What they describe about their lived experience is what matters.

By way of example, if I’m trying to communicate to my male supervisor at work that it frustrates me when he and other men in the office sexually harass me, the point here is not my method of communication, it’s what I am communicating. If my hands are shaking with anger, and my voice is cracking with rage, what matters is that: I don’t want to be sexually harassed at work. If I’m crying and tears are streaming down my face, what matters is that: I don’t want to be sexually harassed at work. If I’m speaking softly, because I’m embarrassed to take a stand for myself, what matters is that: I don’t want to be sexually harassed at work.

Next time you’re having a conversation about another person’s marginalization, and the feeling creeps up to ask them to “tone it down,” take this as a sign to listen harder. Consider how you can help. Particularly if you consider yourself an “ally” with respect to their marginalization, make efforts to listen despite your discomfort. Discomfort is temporary. Oppression is not. If your “allyship” is conditional on palatable communication, that’s not allyship.

Brittany Kilpatrick
About Brittany Kilpatrick 24 Articles
Brittany Kilpatrick is an attorney and co-founder of Bonded Magazine. She likes carbs, reading, pondering the intricacies of Donald Trump's spray tan, Beyoncé, Thesaurus.com, musicals, fully replacing her daily water intake with La Croix, and her dog, Tucker. You can find her on Facebook or Instagram: @brittany.kilpatrick or on Bonded social media: @bondedmag.

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