Calling Out Tone-Policing Has Become Tone-Policing

I belong to a online networking group for writers that is wonderful and full of awesome people and fantastic resources, but tends on the side of being, I don’t know, sensitive. One of the complaints I’ve seen the most, recently, is that one or another person is tone-policing. That phrase was originally used to call people out for claiming that someone’s argument was invalid if they were emotional about it, and in communities of women, GLBTs, people of color, and other marginalized groups, it was useful to be able to put words to the phenomenon, to say “You’re tone-policing me; what I’m saying is true and factually correct, and of course I’m upset about it, it affects me personally.”

But now we’re using it against each other. I’ll give an example: I was pointed toward Paris Lees’ article about TERFs (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists) and feminists and what she views (and to be fair I agree with her on many but not all points) as a circular, unproductive conversation. The article is a good expression of Paris Lees’ personal opinions about the tenor of the conversation between transphobic radical feminists and trans activists. She has advice and critiques to offer to both sides. The worst thing she did was to exclude the fact that, especially in America, TERFs and their rhetoric actively keep trans people from accessing healthcare and housing, that it’s not just an issue of rhetoric — but she tried to remedy that by tweeting an amendment to the article.

The article was labeled as “tone-policing” of the trans community 1) because her advice for trans people was to ignore the trolls and their irrelevant opinions and stop using phrases like “die cis scum” that might alienate potential allies and 2) because the article itself was pretty snarky. And I get it, she is directly telling trans people not to say certain things lest they piss someone off — but she’s not saying that anger doesn’t come from a valid place, or that it nulls their arguments. In effect, the people who pointed me toward that article wrote off the entire thing because they didn’t like what she was saying and — this is crucial — how she was saying it.

Which is, if I’m not mistaken, tone-policing.

I care deeply about the way people form their arguments and the language they use. I write a whole blog about it. I pay obsessive attention to the words people choose and why. I will take what I consider a bad argument, tear it into its separate parts, examine each one in depth, and then link all of the logic back together to form a conclusion about why the person chose to write the particular sentence they did. That could well be considered tone-policing at its nit-pickiest and most aggravating. Or it could be considered an in-depth look at rhetoric and semantics. If people call me a cunt out of anger and tell me to get off the internet, and my response is that their argument lacks any kind of logic, reasoning, or forethought, is clearly borne out of unexamined anger, and is furthermore disrespectful, and so I really don’t care what they have to say, am I tone-policing them, or am I holding them to a higher standard of mutual respect?

If Paris Lees tells trans people that she’s exhausted with the way they’re representing themselves and the trans community rhetorically when they’re dealing with TERFs, is she tone-policing them, or is she asking that they do a better job of advocating for a community to which she belongs, in which she is personally invested, and to which she has a right to say how she would like to be represented?

I think the term “tone-policing” is dead. In fact, I’m not completely sure that it was ever “alive” to begin with. The problem with telling someone that you have a right to express yourself as angrily as you want to without them raising an objection is that you’re also inherently telling them that they don’t have a right to be angry about the way you’re addressing them. That gets particularly hairy when the term starts being thrown around between groups of people like women, GLBTs, and people of color, who have all had to deal with people addressing them disrespectfully their entire lives, and so who rightfully take issue with it when it happens, either to themselves or to other people. Some of our tools for navigating difficult discussions with respect for each other just aren’t that useful.

Rebecca Vipond Brink is a writer, photographer, and traveler. You can follow her at @rebeccavbrink or on her blog, Flare and Fade.