The Truth About Tone Policing

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There’s this old saying, “You can catch more flies with honey than vinegar,” which is to say that you can win more people to your side by being nice than being salty. People try to use this line as a reason to tone police others especially those that are speaking out against matters that end in any sort of -ism. The thing is though, in those cases, tone policing has nothing to do with being polite and everything to do with continuing to silence a marginalized group.

Tone policing is done by and large by the privileged group. Whether that group be white, male, cis, abled body or any combination of privilege, they are generally the ones that are first to point out that some point wasn’t made nicely enough. Be it a discussion on racist housing practices or sexism in the workplace, if the marginalized person that is speaking out against it in any way, shape, or form can be read as being “hostile” or “emotional”, then that privileged person feels justified in pointing out that they’re not being nice. Which is generally shortly followed up with something akin to “That’s why no one is listening to you.”

There are two things deeply wrong with this.

One, no one is or should be required to be polite or be concerned with the feelings of the privileged masses when they are speaking from a place of marginalization. If you are causing someone harm, you should not be concerned with their tone when they are telling you to stop. If you are more concerned that someone approach you nicely when informing you of issues that negatively affect them of which you may be contributing unknowingly to, you are definitely part of the problem.

Policing someone’s tone is a not so subtle way of saying that the privileged person’s comfort is MORE IMPORTANT than the marginalized person’s life.

The second issue is that it asserts the privileged person has having authority over the marginalized group. It is as if the marginalized person is a child asking their caretaker if they can have a cookie and getting the response of “Only if you ask nicely.”

Members of the privileged group don’t really have the authority to say that. It is only through systematic forms of oppression that they are in the position of power, not because they have any right to be there.

The real thing about tone policing is that most of the time, especially in online venues, there is absolutely nothing wrong with anyone’s tone. Being online, it lacks all nonverbal communication and you can read a message for the most part any way you want. The problem is though that when you are talking with privileged people who are used to feeling like they are in power, anything less than total submission is aggression.

The mere act of speaking for yourself, of saying, “This is a problem and I will not stand for it any longer,” is read as aggressive and it likely does not matter how nicely the marginalized person says it, just by speaking out, by calling into question the society that created the issue and continues to support it, that marginalized person has spoken aggressively.

Tone policing is always a way to silence a marginalized voice. It is not about being polite or civil or anything else. Is about dismissing someone or “putting them in their place”. If people have to say things nicely for you to listen, then you’re the one with the problem.

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2 thoughts on “The Truth About Tone Policing

  1. cihlleonee says:

    Wow, I especially love your sentence “anything less than total submission is seen as aggression.” This is so true, and I think about it a lot with women’s issues– the whole being assertive = “bitch”
    I skimmed over all your posts and now o want to read all of them! So excited to see what else you will be posting. Yours is the first blog I’ve come across that’s really taking a stand on social issues and I’m happy to find it!

    • Donyae says:

      Thank you so much! I’m very proud of that sentence actually :).

      I am happy to hear that you like my work and welcome you as a reader. Thank you for letting me know, it’s always nice to hear!

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