It’s bad enough that women have to deal with sexism without someone telling us to “calm down” or encouraging us to restrain from using “unladylike language” when expressing anything more than polite disagreement in the face of misogyny. Unfortunately, ‘tone arguments’ like these are all too common. They’re usually accompanied by the expectation that, when provoked, you will keep your cool, protecting the fragile self-esteem of your offender. And if these expectations are not fulfilled – if you dare to appear angry or intolerant of intolerance — out pops the tone argument, its ugly aims disguised by an apparent concern for civility.
Such concern trolls come in all shapes and sizes. They are the men who claim to be feminist allies, but voice misgivings about the angry way women are expressing themselves, and wonder innocently whether this will detract from the cause of the movement. It is the white people who see people of color responding angrily to racism and berate them for it, and those who expect transphobia to be responded to calmly and positively. These people rear their intolerant heads in every facet of the push for social equality, and expect their feelings to be taken seriously – more seriously than those of the oppressed. Offenders paint themselves as moral do-gooders and superior, rational thinkers, restoring their comfortable position of privileged ignorance without reconsidering their bigoted worldviews.
Their arguments are, however, often completely unsound and illogical. The attitude that ‘you catch more flies with honey than vinegar’ is simply untrue when it comes to actually making a dent in social change. Methods such as ‘speaking nicely,’ have literally been shown to have little to no effect, according to the Geek Feminism Wikia:
“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 […] their concerns are often ignored. Should they raise their concerns in a more pointed or incisive manner, they are berated for being ‘incivil’.”
As Julian Abagond succinctly puts it:
“If it were as simple as having the right tone then racism would have died out ages ago.”
Insisting people ‘don’t fight fire with fire’ is equally problematic. This acknowledges that the speaker is themselves ‘fighting with fire’ whilst demanding such abuse be received without complaint. We are expected not to offend those who offend us, as though our struggles are less important than the feelings of those we debate with. Any offense caused by someone further up the privilege ladder is excused, whereas any rage in response is labelled as ‘embarrassing,’ ‘irrational,’ or ‘misdirected.’ Not only is this fucking ridiculous (exercising my right to speak angrily here), it also presupposes that an emotional response to prejudice is in some way invalid:
“Tone policing is a way of not taking responsibility for fucking up, and it dismisses the other person’s position by framing it as being emotional and therefore irrational. The conflation of emotionality with irrationality is often used to silence women and people who are read as women […] but being emotional does not make one’s points any less valid.”
To those who employ the tone argument, emotion is a signifier of illogical reasoning, a lack of control, and an inability to see things clearly. It is one of the most patronizing ways to respond to legitimate outrage. And that’s just it – the outrage is legitimate. In a society where some people think it is a good thing for women to be shot, I deserve to be angry. When people of color are branded as violent thugs for partaking in the Ferguson protests, and yet white people are not criticized in the same way for rioting over trivial issues, it’s clear something is wrong. Considering people are literally being shot and tortured in the streets, why the hell wouldn’t they be angry? Why wouldn’t they fight back? Throughout history, minority groups have channeled their anger into making a stand against oppression, and I doubt many would have the nerve to look back and remark that more could have been achieved if they had behaved ‘politely.’ It is not up to the privileged to decide what the ‘legitimate’ response is to intolerance: it is up to them to listen to the voices of those who are struggling to be heard, and recognize that their feelings of hurt are misplaced.
A Lesson in Education
But doesn’t our use of anger, and our refusal to educate those who offend us, make us as bad as our opponents? How can the movement progress forward when people refuse to explain to others why they are wrong?
Well, infuriating-albeit-hypothetical concern troll, the answer is simple: you can get off your ass and educate yourself. It’s radical, I know, but it is not anyone’s responsibility to educate you. It is not something you should expect; it is not something we ‘owe’ you. It is something we may do if we have the time or patience, but generally speaking we do not love recounting personal experiences of prejudice for your benefit, nor do we revel in responding to arguments that misunderstand the basic principles of equality and do very little for our blood pressure.
Such expectations are made more infuriating in that they are often established by so-called ‘Nice Guys:’
“Despite the hundreds of resources on the subject which he could, like the rest of us, go off and read, Nice Guy expects women to stop what they are doing, and instead share their experiences of oppression and answer his questions. In an ironic twist, Nice Guy is unaware that by demanding women divert their energies to immediately gratifying his whims, he reinforces the power dynamics he is supposedly seeking to understand.”
With Great Privilege Comes Great Responsibility
Here’s the thing: the rest of us managed to educate ourselves without expecting others to do it for us. We read articles, watched documentaries, blog posts, whatever else we could get our hands on, and most importantly listened to others recounting their experiences of oppression. It is not up to the marginalized to educate the world, and the assumption that without this the movement for equality would fall apart completely erases the responsibility of the privileged to do some of the hard work. Without accepting this responsibility, they merely reinforce a hierarchy in which the needs of the marginalized are always secondary to their own.
Nobody likes being told they’re wrong. But guess what? We’re furious about the way things are at the moment, and we shouldn’t have to contain that fury. So to those who are in the habit of objecting to tone: stop criticizing the anger of others, and start questioning why it is you can afford to emotionally distance yourself from the discussion when others cannot. And if you really refuse to do that – if you don’t have any interest in understanding our anger – well then, you’re just going to have to learn to fucking deal with it.
Image via Porsche Brosseau.