I can already feel that no one is going to like this one.
I had never heard the term “tone policing” until yesterday, when it sprung up in one of my Twitter rants about, well, that’s not pertinent right now. You can go through my feed if you’re interested in knowing exactly what I’m talking about, but it’s not very pretty. The term was used to refute the particular attitude I took towards the situation, basically being this: Twitter is not a safe space, and if you are vitriolic and direct on it you are going to get retaliated upon, so you have to be careful about how your anger is expressed if your first priority is to protect yourself.
That, as I have graciously learned from a few close friends of mine, is problematic.
“Tone policing” is a term that describes a certain tactic in argumentation that, while not necessarily important in actual debate, certainly impacts how you should approach everyday conversation: by criticizing the tone of a person, you derail the argument to be about tone rather than the content being addressed. In this case, I made this mistake of criticizing the way a certain Twitter user expressed their anger and that the backlash and doxxing they got, while certainly undeserved and unjustified, is certainly something that happens nonetheless, rather than actually addressing the wrong that they were talking about in the first place.
Before I go any further about this, please recognize this about how I view the world: tone matters, especially on the Internet, because the way you approach and persuade someone to understand your point of view is to hit the correct tone. Otherwise, you’re just broadcasting into a void and no one who you’re actually trying to communicate with will listen to the intended message. Communication is a two-way street. In order to expect a certain response, you have to behave as such. Not paying attention to how you communicate leads to misunderstanding, misinformation, and most importantly shouting matches where no information is actually clashing and both parties are talking past each other into their respective echo chambers.
Okay, that’s a rather loaded statement, and it doesn’t really apply to what I’m actually talking about, but maybe you understand where I’m coming from when I say that being mindful of one’s tone is important to being persuasive. Despite my beliefs, however, I neglected to consider a few things. The person wronged may not have wanted an actual conversation and just wanted to be heard. Perhaps the better option in a social situation such as this is to keep quiet instead. Maybe the correct decision, in this case, is to let the angered party speak for themselves and not put words into their mouth in an attempt to make a point.
Or maybe, and this is the point that really got my attention as to how my attitude is problematic, is that expecting civility in all forms of communication implies that marginalized people have a choice in how to express themselves. To put it bluntly, they’re presented with three bad decisions: the useless one by which you do not say anything, and two equally bad options for open expression: being civil and being aggressive. Being civil makes it very hard for people to actually heed you since very few people who are initially uninterested in the subject will actually stick around to listen. Aggressiveness, which you’d expect would have more impact, leads people to police your tone and derail your point.
So in my position, as someone who feels privileged enough to have these kinds of choices, I have a very interesting set of decisions to make in terms to communicating with the marginalized. Am I expected to hear them out unconditionally and with patience, or are they expected to make their case in the most persuasive way possible? Both options require effort, and both sides would have to work. In an ideal world, both parties would make the effort to communicate effectively.
The problem is that few people know how to communicate effectively, and even if you know how to communicate it’s not easy to practice those skills in an extreme situation without over analyzing yourself to the point of indifference, inaction, and/or apathy. So if expecting to hear them out unconditionally and with patience is too much, and being expected to make your case in the most persuasive way possible is too much, then what is an unrelated party like myself supposed to do? What actions can I take? I ask this because I don’t know. I don’t understand why I don’t have any good choices to make in terms of speaking out.
Do I show compassion for the victim? If I did, it would be disingenuous because I truly feel that they played a part in their own demise. Do I blame the victim? Of course not. That’s kicking them while they’re down and is an unnecessary point to make. Do I try to find some kind of middle ground, where there’s elements of both involved? As evidenced by my Twitter conversations yesterday, I failed to do that and came off as victim blaming and tone policing. So the best option, if there’s no good way to talk about it, is just to not talk at all. Be silent. Shut up and let it resolve itself. Maybe show condolences for the victim so that they’re aware that you exist and are witnessing this unfold. Or not, because maybe a slight pat on the back is exactly the wrong thing to do for certain people who are under great duress. That kind of thing differs from person to person, and, as demonstrated by my ranting and ignorance yesterday, I went with the wrong option of trying to talk about things I didn’t know much about to an audience who clearly were more intimate with this sort of discourse than I was.
At the same time, had I not talked about it and gotten backlash for my ignorance, I would never have heard the term “tone policing”. I would have remained unaware of the the social problems that marginalized communities face when trying to express their anger, as well as their protests, to others who both matter in the grand scheme of things and have more privilege. I now understand a lot better the structural problems that exist in such conversations. That’s mainly what I was going for: to understand why people believe the things they do believe, and what compels them to think that certain action that I do not agree with are okay in their eyes.
I guess I wasn’t very clear about it, because in the end I was not met with any sort of eager response. I was told, in essence, to shut up. Perhaps explaining this sort of thing is tiring for the marginalized. I imagine that they’d have to explain this to the ignorant masses again and again and again until it just feels as though the general public will never understand you, even when you’re trying to strike a healthy balance between accommodating and assertive. Or maybe they never considered the possibility of people understanding them, and just make a whole bunch of assumptions about how much of an idiot that person is with their uninformed opinions and call it a day.
I can relate to that part a bit. Having an exhaustive discussion is, well, exhausting. And if you’re spending your time and emotional energy trying to get a message across to a complete stranger on the Internet, what is that even worth in the end? You ran yourself emotionally dry to maybe change one or two people’s opinion, perhaps only slightly, when you could be doing something more productive with your time like, say, going for a walk, or reading a book while sipping tea, or just fucking get off Twitter and not be about that depressing life. But that’s because of my privilege as a lower-middle class straight Asian American male. Marginalized communities, as I am to believe, are forced to fight at every turn. Allegedly, they have no other sensible option than to do so.
That’s ultimately the thing that will prevent me from completely understanding why “tone policing” is bad. I think it’s possible to be civil and get your message heard without retaliation at the same time. Most do not. I’m not comfortable with that truth, but it’s just something that’s true. There’s no going around it.
So what will it take for me to fully understand the significance of the term, aside from actively being marginalized? I suppose, in that case, I will never understand.