Text 14 Jul 19 notes The Tone Argument


I could not give less of a shit if they get called names. That’s what we call the tone argument, and it’s used to shut down legitimate complaints. It’s literally the last bastion of someone without an argument. 

The scenario goes something like this:

Feminist #1: Fuck you you fucking misogynist douche, go kill yourself for that opinion.

Feminist #2: Woah. I agree with you that the opinion was ignorant, but don’t you think it would get the message across better if we stayed calm and polite?

Feminist #1: Fuck off tone policing me you arrogant prick.

Feminist #2 here is employing what feminists call ‘the tone argument’. Some, stfusexists obviously included, don’t like this argument. Let’s look at some reasons why, taken from her link:

tone argument is an argument used in discussions, sometimes by Concern trolls and sometimes as a Derailment, in which it is suggested that feminists would be more successful if only they expressed themselves in a more pleasant tone.

It sounds reasonable so far?

This is sometimes described as catching more flies with honey than with vinegar — a particular variant of the tone argument.

You do catch more flies with honey than vinegar. What is the problem?

Occasionally a reverse tone argument is seen. For instance, in one comment on the Mark Shuttleworth at Linuxcon incident, a commenter named Craig complimented(?) Kirrily Robert saying:

This letter is very well written, non-aggressive, and thoughtful – I couldn’t agree more. I’m glad you didn’t go off on hate filled attack like has been seen lately against RMS for many reasons.

In doing so, he compared this particular statement with a supposed Angry feminist mob baying for Richard Stallman's blood in relation to the EMACS virgins joke incident, although any such mob was a Straw-feminist in the first place.

So you’re even getting angry about somebody complimenting somebody else about being calm? I’m still not seeing this big problem.

A metaphor for refuting the tone argument:

If you tread on someone’s toes, and they tell you to get off, then get off their toes. Don’t tell them to “ask nicely”.[1]

Fair enough, for toes. But the metaphor doesn’t work. The issues feminism deals with are massive, concerning all sorts of people, and with the potential to distribute or prevent a lot of suffering. They should not, therefore, be dealt with with a knee-jerk reaction. They also don’t have the immediacy of the toes example; we are at liberty to discuss and reason these problems thoroughly, and we are in fact obliged to if we want to be sure of making the right decision. Finally, in the latter case it is often impossible to get off of the speaker’s toes, because you don’t know where the toes are. As the issues involved are much more complex, you do need it explaining to you before you can relieve any suffering that you are causing. As the issues involved are much more subtle, you do need persuading that you are causing suffering in the first place - because it isn’t obvious.

I have a nightmare memory from school when a teacher once told me to open a window. I had no idea how, and I tried, but she shouted at me to hurry up and called me stupid. Surprisingly, the shouting and the name calling didn’t help her get what she wanted - all it caused was more pain. So yes, there is definitely a case for actually explaining what you want doing, and to really communicate you need to speak calmly and peacefully.

For all of those reasons, the toe metaphor doesn’t work. Even if it did, it could be easily rewritten in the ‘tone-policer’s favour: If somebody treads on your toes, you ask them to get off, rather than just punching them. You cope with the suffering, because that’s the only way you can properly cure it. You don’t want to cause more suffering, because that is against what you stand for. Okay?

Not only would punching the culprit hurt them, it might ultimately hurt you by breeding hate. This is particularly important in more relevant examples to feminism, because you represent a movement, and public opinion can really affect a movement’s success. So no, you don’t want to be encouraging people to hate feminism - but in hating and attacking them first, you do just that. The same website talks of an imaginary ‘angry feminist mob’ which was supposedly created as part of a conspiracy; probably involving the secret society of anti-feminists and some sexist aliens who somehow managed to brainwash everyone into hating feminists. Or not. Is it not much more likely that the feminists created these stereotypes for themselves, by being aggressive, encouraging hostility and an ‘us-versus-them’ mentality, excluding any views or people that don’t fit with their own personal interpretations… and so on. These people really do exist, and yes, they discredit feminism for the rest of us. So if you won’t stop verbally harassing people because it hurts them, stop it because it hurts you.

As the tone argument suggests that ‘feminists would be more successful if..’ it can’t just be called a ‘derailing’. If anything it’s a re-railing, because it seeks to improve the image and voice of a movement that has definitely gone off the rails. It seeks only to get the movement back on track in a constructive rather than destructive incarnation. 

It also can’t be accused of suppressing the voice of feminism, because it doesn’t seek to silence anybody - it is, in fact, advice simply seeking to amplify the existing voices and bring them to a wider market. ‘Feminists’ who exclude and force people away from feminism are the real silencers, and they are the ones ‘tone-policers’ challenge, in their attempt to cure the bad apples before they completely spoil the barrel. When thinking about these issues, we have to consider that we don’t live in a void - your angry and vindictive actions are going to have much wider consequences.

The tone argument has even been called bigoted. Let’s look at what that means:

bigot is a person obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices, especially one exhibiting intolerance, and animosity toward those of differing beliefs

But doesn’t the tone argument actually attempt to fight intolerance and animosity? I believe that it does. Do you think different beliefs are most likely to be heard in a reasonable discussion, or when receiving hatred and abuse? I’m going to have a wild guess at the former. Again, you don’t live in a void, and it isn’t only your viewpoints which matter. Sure you might like to express your justifications through violence, but it isn’t all about you. Not only do you evidently not care for the well-being of your opponent, or spreading truth and actually helping somebody, or maintaining the last scraps of credibility that your movement has, but you don’t care about hearing any opinion other than your own. You don’t even think that anybody holding such an opinion has the right to voice it, or even defend themselves against your accusations.

In this country we have this system called ‘a fair trial’. It’s a basic right. People have the right to defend themselves. Even if they are found guilty, they are ideally re-educated rather than just given up on and killed off as obviously evil. Internet feminism could learn a lot from both of those rules.

But of course, feminism has always excluded people on the basis of race, class, sexual identity, and especially gender. Certain viewpoints are excluded and silenced just because they aren’t appreciated, or just because they come from one of those excluded people. That’s bigotry. Shouting people down because they opened their mouths and you doubt that you want to hear their defence, is bigotry. Asking somebody not to do that? Not so much. ‘The last bastion of someone without an argument’ sounds a lot more like blind aggression and name calling.

Ultimately this should be a movement about inclusion, not exclusion. Equality, not bias. Love, not hate. But hate seems to be what it is full of, and that is something that really does need to change - not just for personal opinions, but because the movement is never going to progress at all if all we can do is war. We are educators, not fighters. All ‘tone-policers’ are doing is asking you to remember that.

They even do it politely. 

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