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Tone argument

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"Just because you sound polite, doesn't mean your words aren't hurtful. Just because you sound acerbic, doesn't mean your words aren't kind." -- Comrade Squinky

"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'." -- Geeksophical

A tone argument is an argument used in discussions, sometimes by concern trolls and sometimes as a derailment tactic, where it is suggested that feminists would be more successful if only they expressed themselves in a more pleasant tone. This is also sometimes described as catching more flies with honey than with vinegar, a particular variant of the tone argument. The tone argument also manifests itself where arguments produced in an angry tone are dismissed irrespective of the legitimacy of the argument; this is also known as tone policing.

The tone argument is a form of derailment, or a red herring, because the tone of a statement is independent of the content of the statement in question, and calling attention to it distracts from the issues raised. Drawing attention to the tone rather than content of a statement can allow other parties to avoid engaging with sound arguments presented in that statement, thus undermining the original party's attempt to communicate and effectively shutting them down.

Tone arguments are also often entwined with privilege, especially when a member of a oppressor group (oftentimes in a position of power) abuses said power to shut down concerns raised by a marginalized group, irrespective of whether the concerns are valid through invoking the tone argument. This is especially true when the marginalized is a newcomer to the discussion and is afterward ostracized by the groupthink when their tone differs from those preferred by the group.

The tone argument is also used as a silencing tactic, where someone invariably becomes angry due to their opponent (often in a position of power) dismissed or ignores their repeated requests or well-reasoned arguments, and said anger is then used to justify removing them from the discussion, thereby silencing them.

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

Writing principally about racism, Patricia Williams characterized what we call the tone argument as "a laissez-faire response that privatizes the self in order to remain unassailably justified in any and all activities", imagining a dialogue between Cain and Abel:

Cain: Abel's part of town is rough turf.

Abel: It upsets me when you say that; you have never been to my part of town. As a matter of fact, my part of town is a leading supplier of milk and honey.

Cain: The news that I'm upsetting you is too upsetting for me to handle. You were wrong to tell me of your upset because now I'm terribly upset.

Abel: I felt threatened first. Listen to me. Take your distress as a measure of my own and empathize with it. Don't ask me to recant and apologize in order to carry this conversation further.

(Patricia Williams, "Teleology on the Rocks" in The Alchemy of Race and Rights (1991))

Civility Edit

One way in which the tone argument frequently manifests itself is as a call for civility. A way to gauge whether a request for civility is sincere or not is to ask whether the person asking for civility has more power along whatever axes are contextually relevant (see Intersectionality) than the person being called "incivil", less power, or equal power. Often, people who have the privilege of being listened to and taken seriously level accusations of "incivility" as a silencing tactic, and label as "incivil" any speech or behavior that questions their privilege. For example, some men label any feminist thought or speech as hostile or impolite; there is no way for anybody to question male power or privilege without being called rude or aggressive. Likewise, some white people label any critical discussion of race, particularly when initiated by people of color, as incivil.

When practised by a more privileged person, a request for civility may come across as both controlling and disingenuous. Asserting oneself as the one who gets to define civility can come across as a way to show dominance, as well as reflecting a conflict of interest: if you're the less-privileged person in the conversation, you may ask yourself: "Do they really think I was impolite, or do they just have an interest in not being criticized?"

For people who find themselves on the privileged side in any particular interaction, rather than asking your interlocutor to be more civil, you should question why they might be speaking in a way that seems angry or hostile to you, and attempt to ignore their tone and focus on the content of what they are saying. Are they angry because they intend to hurt, or because they are frustrated about having their voices and those of others like them unheard and their perspectives repeatedly erased, possibly over many years by many different people? In the latter case, discussions are usually more productive when the offended party forgives apparent insults and treats the other party with the respect they wish to see, rather than derailing the conversation by changing the subject to the particulars of the other's etiquette. If you have trouble telling the reasons behind a person's anger, asking for those reasons will at least go over better than outright telling them to stop. If you do this, you still have not addressed their argument. To continue the conversation without addressing their argument would be to derail it. But if, before responding to the argument directly, you ask a few questions to establish where the arguer is coming from, that may enable you to respond better.


At the opposite end of the emotion spectrum, sounding emotionally detached in conversation may become tone-policed as "too flippant." Women are simultaneously labelled as overly emotional at one end, and frivolous on the other. This leaves them with two disadvantageous choices: being seen as either irrational or immature in a discussion. As there is an expectation for women to defer to men, expressing emotional detachment in one's voice may lead to accusations of being disrespectful or sociopathic. This forces women into a balancing act.

Women that face multiple intersecting oppressions are usually the minority of the minority in number. People in a position of privilege may find it easier to dismiss members of such a small group. When they speak in a serious tone, these women may be framed as taking themselves too seriously for being such an insignificant segment of the population. At the opposite end of the spectrum, if they are too unemotional, their political cause or argument is framed as clearly not important enough to consider.

Double bindEdit

The tone argument presents one end of a common double bind that members of marginalized groups face. If they speak out in a measured or deferential way about oppressive behaviours, their concerns are often ignored. Should they raise their concerns in a more pointed or incisive manner, they are berated for being "incivil".


As in the case of "nice guy", the term "tone argument" as used in feminist discourse is more specific than it appears. It does not refer to an argument as such, but to the use of an argument to ruin conversations and silence people.

Further, using this tactic to silence privileged people who have plenty of opportunities to express their views would not normally be described as "tone argument," although the method is the same, because "tone argument" is a term of art used for a particular kind of oppression, and not just a particular kind of rudeness. It is often difficult to have feminist conversations at all, with anyone; thus, when incivil participants threaten to ruin a feminist conversation, there is the possibility that the conversation will never happen again. Excluding incivility on that basis may look like the tone argument, but the consequences are not at all similar, so it is not a tone argument.

It is nonetheless possible for feminists to employ the tone argument, usually against members of oppressed groups they do not belong to. For that, see Intersectionality.

Examples in geek culture Edit

  • Racefail, a sprawling conversation about Race in Science Fiction Fandom, saw constant examples of the tone argument being used. Some posts on this include:
  • Jono Bacon, in comments to this post about women in open source, says, "the tone in which the debate is executed often seems to devolve into a less constructive form". The same comment thread also claims that criticism is Harming the community.
  • The OpenRespect initiative encourages members of open source communities to "engage in honest, open and polite debate with the goal of enriching each others perspectives". While reasonable in the context of (for instance) choice of text editor or programming language, the document was released after a series of incidents in the Ubuntu community where feminists criticised the Ubuntu project or senior people involved in it.
  • Gary Stock, in a discussion of Pseudonymity on Google+: "PLEASE CONSIDER preaching less to the choir -- and doing so in a less shrill way -- and instead focus on how reasonable people adapt their beliefs. I sincerely doubt that relentless untempered outrage helps this cause." The lengthy comment thread contains further examples.
  • The first person to respond to Brianna Wu's June 2014 talk "Nine Ways to Stop Hurting and Start Helping Women in Tech" began by chiding her for "too much stick, not enough carrot", and continued with similar arguments. Video here (Q&A starts at 29:30).
  • TRUCEConf
  • Brendan Eich attempted to justify his donation to Proposition 8 by accusing his critics of "baiting, ranting, and hurling four-letter abuse."

See also Edit

Further reading Edit

  • The tone argument by abagond
  • On Smarm - Tom Scocca characterizes the tone argument and several other silencing tactics under the umbrella of "smarm": "Smarm is a kind of performance—an assumption of the forms of seriousness, of virtue, of constructiveness, without the substance. Smarm is concerned with appropriateness and with tone. Smarm disapproves."
  • Dealing with the Tone Police by Ragen Chastain
  • The Uses of Anger, Audre Lorde
  • a comic on tone policing by Robot Hugs

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