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Digging deeper on the “tone” argument

I’m not really big on the tone argument.  I’m not going to even pretend I like the tone argument.   I guess I’m not very civil. 

Even if I were, if you’re a person talking about marginalization or oppression or social justice, eventually some person will drop by to let you know that you need to “calm down” or that you’re “too angry.”   They will tell you this even if you’re the President of the United States and have a practiced, even and monotone voice.   They will point at a Prop. 8 marriage equality/gay rights protest and say, “How can they expect to be listened to if they are blocking traffic and making things difficult for everyone else?”  

They’ll tell you that you are not polite enough to meet their standards for listening to you, all while emphasizing that they’re “just trying to be helpful” and that, in case you didn’t realize it, you’re alienating people with your “tone.”   There is an expectation—an entitlement—to basic politeness, which is understandable…but what happens when those expectations for politeness from the privileged become a competing interest against the voices of the marginalized?  When a desire for polite tone overrides and attempts to control how the marginalized speak out about oppression?

I stand behind what I wrote earlier this year about tone on the Racebending tumblr:

Is the tone argument derailing? Absolutely. Does tone matter? Absolutely. Yes.

Tone matters, but not the way [people] understand it to matter. Tone matters, because people with privilege use “tone” as an excuse not to listen to you. “Regardless of the content of what you said or the validity of your argument, because you did not say it the exact way I wanted to, I will invalidate you.” Or, “I didn’t intend for it to be offensive and I don’t find [what I did to be] offensive. What I do find offensive is your tone.” (ie. “I get to decide what is offensive.”)

This puts the responsibility on the oppressed. It suggests to people of color, to women, to gays, to any oppressed group that “if only they had confronted the discrimination they faced in a better (more tactical, more appeasing, etc.) tone, maybe the people who ignored them would have listened. It teaches them that they should not burden others with their stories. It teaches them that they are in part responsible for their oppression due to their poor use of tone, even though they have no power over how someone labels their tone and even less power over how they are treated. Which, come on. Deciding whether or not to listen is a choice. If the decision to ignore injustice hinges on someone’s tone…

It is very difficult to avoid this trap. It means playing offense and defense at the same time. The easiest thing to do is to try and give people fewer opportunities to attack your tone. But make no mistake: this also means capitulating to the same oppressive power dynamic that is silencing you in the first place. In addition to the outsiders who will police your tone, you begin to watch your own tone. Tone becomes a tool you use to amplify your voice and oppress yourself at the same time.

You stifle your outrage, your defense mechanisms, your right to speak out. You train yourself to talk about discrimination with a brilliant smile. You live with the anxiety and reality that they may slam your tone anyway, ignore you anyway.

They remind you that they listen to you only because they are benevolent enough to tolerate your pleasant tone. Perhaps they will even give you benevolent advice on how to talk about your experiences, all while reminding you that while experiencing discrimination is not optional for you, listening is optional for them. That before they care about your pain, you have to remember to please them, first, by respecting their right not to be annoyed by you. You must be deferent to be viewed as worthy of consideration, goes the advice.

You allow them to argue that the way you say it is more important than what you are saying. Because the majority has deemed that only certain tones are appropriate when discussing these issues. Because those with power get to dictate how the victims talk about their own oppression. And you want to believe that maybe, maybe if you just say it the right way, this one time…people will listen.

Was my tone too harsh there?   I guess it depends on who is listening.   I wonder how often the “tone” argument is used as an excuse not to listen to the arguments behind the underlying pain.

Because it’s pain, really, underneath all of that stuff, as one of my professors pointed out.  Behind anger is pain, and behind that, fear.  So whether you are angry at someone because they said or did something –ist, or angry at them because of their offensive “tone” when calling out a –ist action…there’s really fear behind that, right?   And rooted behind that, anxiety. 

In school, I’m learning about rudimentary neurobiology and mental health and therapy and we’re studying concepts like emotional regulation, fear responses, cognitive functioning, etc.  So for example, therapists will teach the concept of projective identification to their clients to help those clients adjust their outlook and understand how they react to what other people think of them.  This concept goes hand-in-hand with the old Eleanor Roosevelt quote: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”  

The idea is that if you teach people this, then they will be less affected by what other people do and how they treat them.  They will have more power over how they view themselves and have a stronger sense of identity that is less defined by others. 

But I wonder how well this idea factors in situations where the individual experiences systemic oppression.  It’s one thing to tell someone, “Don’t believe what people say, just because someone thinks you’re bad at math because you are a girl doesn’t mean that you are.  If you then believe that you are bad at math because you are a girl, you must be consenting to feeling this way!”  

That doesn’t make sense.  Stereotype threat is a proven phenomenon.  Internalized oppression is a very real experience for many people.   If, because this girl is surrounded by tones of social stereotypes about women in the sciences, she starts to become more anxious or experience self doubt or feel less incompetent or less deserving in her math major at college, is it entirely in her control to decide whether or not to be affected by discrimination?   Does she “choose” to be affected?   Choose to be offended?  Choose to be hurt?   Is “deciding not to let discrimination affect me” the same thing as ignoring discrimination, which in turn can mean tolerating discrimination so that it continues and flourishes?

Rooted in the tone argument is this idea of emotional regulation.   The entire argument is basically, “You are not emotionally regulated right now, cut it out, why should people listen to you?”    I’m not going to deny the value of emotional regulation and cognitive control.   Neurobiologically, it improves cognitive functioning.  In comparison, when you are in a state of hyperarousal, you are using your amygdala and reacting on very basic levels (fight, flight, freeze.) 

[As an aside, check out this blog article talking about a study that found that conservatives are more likely to use their amygdala and liberals are more likely to use their cortex…]

We see emotional regulation as a sign of emotional maturity, a sign of healthy functioning, a sign of cognitive flexibility, etc.   But we don’t consider how someone’s situation can impact their ability to emotionally regulate.  If you grew up in a dangerous environment or were constantly exposed to poverty, for example, your fight/flight/freeze response probably fired up a lot more frequently than someone not as exposed to those things. If you’re marinating in a subtly and implicitly sexist or homophobic or classist world, there’s a lot you have to overcome or learn to “tolerate” before you can get to the point of emotionally regulating.  Do we always take this into account before expecting people to be emotionally regulated?  It’s easier for some people than others.

As someone who is on the receiving end of discrimination, you don’t want to be locked into using your limbic system to respond to bullshit.  People who are emotionally regulated are using their anterior cingulate cortex and can process information much better and operate in a more goal directed way.  They can problem solve better and navigate situations better.   Surely that would be ideal, right?  To be able to be exposed to –ist bullshit, process your feelings in a validating and efficient way, and then be in a proper mind to protect and adapt to this stuff?

I’m not validating the “tone argument” because of this, though.  What I’m really arguing is that the “tone argument” or telling someone to “calm down” or “stop sounding so angry” does nothing to help someone emotionally regulate.  It’s a poison pill. 

“People are more likely to listen to you and change their behavior if you use a good tone.”   This is taken as common sense.  Is there proof for this premise?   Obviously diplomacy is important; if this is some sort of underlying universal truth and everyone knows this, why bother to say it aloud when saying it aloud also means reminding someone of all of the push-and-pull factors of catering your tone to others?

These conversations are uncomfortable.   The people impacted by discrimination feel uncomfortable.  Hearing about their experiences makes us uncomfortable.  Wanting to escape feeling uncomfortable is natural.  Is the intention behind saying “your tone is so bad, wow” really about helping someone find the “right tone” to get their voice heard?  Or is it more of a manifestation of your own discomfort?  Discomfort that someone is upset, discomfort because upset brown people/women/queer people/etc. are scary?  Are you threatened by their “angry” tone?  If so, how is it threatening to you, and why?  

Is it helpful, is it actually helping get that person out of their fears and their fight/flight response and into their thinking brain?  Or are you actually saying it with the subconscious intent to keep that person there?  Are you saying it so you don’t have to actually examine what they are saying?

I guess what I’m really saying is, when you tell someone to “calm down” or to “adjust their tone” you aren’t really helping them move out of the anger you perceive they are feeling.  On a subconscious level, you are reminding of them of their helplessness, and that they will be judged for tone before their situation can even be heard.  You are contributing to what upsets them, because you are telling them that they are not being heard.

Whether or not this person is still in that “fear response” stage, you are actually—actively—trying to push this person back into or keep them in that stage.   You are actually emotionally escalating them, not helping them.

And the net result is that as long as they are in that stage (whether they actually are, or you believe they are) then you have the perfect excuse not to engage with them.  Not to listen to them.  Not to challenge yourself.  

That’s the contradiction, right?  We usually don’t listen to people if they are being disrespectful to us.  But why should we be respectful to people who aren’t listening?  (Because we shouldn’t expect to be listened to unless we are respectful --which right there reinforces this weird, deeply embedded, parent/child dynamic between the person demanding respect and the person wanting to be heard.)  Why should people expect others to be respectful when talking about how they have been disrespected?   

So that’s again, privileging your discomfort (because someone’s tone was not-so-nice) over the person reacting to discrimination, and their discomfort towards being discriminated against.

At least have the honesty to say that you don’t like what they are saying, not just that you don’t like their tone.