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.