Thoughts on communication #6 (escalation)

Online communication* tends to foster certain, ahem, negative behaviour which make it often a rather bruising experience. My current online hangout is the members’ forum of the Green Party and even that bunch of mild-mannered people has given rise to a couple of barroom brawls in the short time I’ve been watching it (one of the brawls prompted this post).

I know only too well why people behave the way they do online – in Jaron Lanier’s phrase, I have met my Inner Troll. Therefore I’m mainly interested in the question: what can I personally do about the things I’m complaining about? One thing I can do is the be aware of the inbuilt tendency towards unintentional escalation and try to make allowances for it.


Online disputation in which there are two clear “sides” can result in both sides claiming that the other side is bullying them – and both sides seeming to be right in that claim.  There’s a very interesting article by the social psychologist Daniel Gilbert about this – basically that we try to give an equally-weighted response to any perceived ‘attack’ but that we are rubbish at judging this accurately and end up responding with an escalated attack, to which our opponent tries to respond equally, but in fact misjudges and escalates … it’s worth reading (despite the bad formatting) because it refers to actual experiments.


*and I’ve been watching it for longer than most: first e-mail lists, then webpages, then blog comments, then forums and now, from a distance, through binoculars, the sheer ghastliness that is twitter.

Thoughts on communication #5 (“tone policing”)

I recently came across the term “tone policing”. I try to read beyond the bare words, and I often talk about the “tone” of a piece of writing or speaking (not a million miles from the sort of thing you do in studying english literature). I also sometimes say that getting all shouty is (usually) a very poor persuasive strategy (are you really trying to persuade or are are you just performing for your supporters? Or even merely relishing the sensation of being ‘in the right’?); I think this is a reasonable point of commonsense psychology. I was therefore slightly concerned that I will sooner or later be “called out” (yuck!) for “tone policing”. The meaning wasn’t entirely self-evident to me so I looked it up.

“Tone policing” it turns out, is not an unreasonable thing to object to. It seems to refer to replying to a forcefully-expressed argument by saying something along the lines of “you know you’d really make your case better if you didn’t come across as so angry”, which of course is infuriatingly patronising because it ignores the substantive point that is being made and it presumes to teach you a basic lesson about how to conduct yourself in public. So, it’s a useful term, especially as “microagressions” might be getting a bit stale and we all love novelty. However, it does grate a tiny bit.

Language can be thought of as a weapon (Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors we live by uses ‘argument is war’ as one of its main examples). The “Tone policing” charge was devised as a defence against an unfair rhetorical device (and it works by drawing attention to the fact that such a device has been used), yet it does seem to have some pre-emptive attack potential.

Discussing the way people express themselves can be legitimate. Forceful expression can itself be a rhetorical device – “look how incredibly passionate I am!” and a charge of tone policing could be an attempt to assert the primacy and authenticity of one’s passionate assertions over any attempt to suggest that there is a rhetorical device being used (“I feel so strongly how dare you say anything that I could possibly interpret as being against me personally!”).

All part of the rhetorical arms race.