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Well, I said I had a post coming about the Nymwars issue and the tone argument. So here we go.

So when is complaining about a policy that disproportionately affects marginalized people and creates a homogenized echo chamber for privileged people, exactly like hanging black people as a form of guerrilla pseudo-justice in order to maintain a system of white dominance and privilege?

When you’re Google, apparently!

Tim O’Reilly has complained that those arguing against G+’s “real names policy” (which is more accurately described as a “WASP names policy,” since you can pick any fake name you like as long as it follows enough Western naming conventions to fly under their radar) is acting like a “lynch mob.”

Elsewhere, pro-naming-policy people have beenseen complaining about the “rudeness” or “yelling” of anti-naming-policy,pro-pseudonym people. I will readily admit that it’s entirely possible that there have been private emails sent that I have no knowledge of, or even that there have been comments exchanged which I haven’t seen. But I have to say that honestly, I’ve yet to spot a single comment by a pro-nym person that approaches the level of rudeness I’ve seen from the pro-policy people, who have used terms like “idiots” and “assholes” to describe pro-nym people. I've seen condescending remarks about "those kinds of people" who can just "go elsewhere" unless they're "too stupid to realize that if they don't feel safe they shouldn't be on the Internet at all," and anyway no one wants to hear them post about their cats and their breakfast and their rape experiences, amiriteguys?

What I have seen is a lot of pro-nym people reference posts like the excellent “Who is harmed by a real names policy?” wikipage:
which chronicles the harm to vulnerable groups like people of color, GLBTQ people, victims of rape/abuse/stalking, women, people with disabilities or health problems, religious minorities, government protesters, and others. I’ve seen them talk about how the impacts of such a policy intersect with institutional racism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other discriminatory forces. I’ve seen them raise the question of privilege with pro-policy people, and ask ,essentially, why the rest of the world should be forced to comply with a policy that is really only favorable to the privileged. I’ve seen them ask the pro-policy people to check their own privilege.

When the pro-policy folks started describing this as rude, aggressive, attacking behavior? I thought “wait, I’ve heard this argument before.”

When the term “lynch mob” was rolled out?

Well, this is my surprised face.

Because you don’t spend time talking about social justice on- and offline without running into what’s frequently called “the tone argument.”

Here is how the tone argument goes: “Why do you have to be so hostile and rude? How can you expect anyone to listen to you when you are so aggressive? If you wouldn’t shriek about [racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.] every time someone else opens their mouths, maybe people could listen to what you have to say. But it’s impossible to talk to you when you’re so angry. No wonder no one takes you seriously. You just beat people over the head with your position. As soon as anybody else says something that isn’t politically correct, you start lighting your torches and bonfires. Why can’t you just calmly state what your position is? Why can’t you just teach people about your ideas instead of screaming at them? Why do you always have to get so emotional and oversensitive and start lashing out at people? You have such a chip on your shoulder!”

Etc. etc. etc. – the words vary but the argument is the same: You are not playing nice, and I do not have to take you seriously if you don’t meet my standard of niceness.

Here is how to construct an effective tone argument:
1) Critique the messenger, not the message.
2) Use violent imagery to characterize the messenger.
3) Position yourself as the victim of the messenger.
4) State that naturally, you would of course consider the message if it were delivered in some other fashion, because of course you are a reasonable person.
5) Leave the messenger to decide whether or not to attempt to guess,through trial and error, what fashion of comment it is that you would be open to listening to, and make repeated attempts to provide their message in a way that fits your standards of communication.
6) Any time the messenger attempts to re-characterize their message in a way you might find acceptable, begin again at item #1.
7) Corollary: if you have accidentally left yourself vulnerable by being too explicit about identifying the conditions under which you would theoretically pay attention to the message, and the messenger should actually achieve a message that fulfills those conditions, explain that you still cannot possibly listen to the message because you are still coping with having been previously victimized by the messenger in earlier exchanges.
8) Important: Never acknowledge any legitimate feelings or experiences that the messenger might have related to the situation in question. Particularly critical: never acknowledge any way in which you might personally benefit from the status quo, or the way in which refusing to engage with the message perpetuates said status quo.

Here’s the thing about the tone argument though: It is a false dilemma. It is a total derail (see also


At all.


In any context.

Using any words.

There is no “tone” that makes the invoking of racism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, class privilege, etc. acceptable, palatable, and fair game in the minds of many people who benefit from these dynamics.

You don’t have to dig very far to find conversations about the futility of trying to discuss dynamics of privilege if doing so is prima facie evidence of being unfair, hostile, angry, violent,abusive, etc. This most often, in conversations I encounter, comes up around racism, because apparently associating someone’s beliefs or actions with outcomes that support a racist system of oppression is pretty much the worst thing anyone can do in the United States today. (Also, everyone knows that people of color are violent and dangerous, and so anything they might have to say about race is inherently one step away from ballooning into a violent mob screaming “Kill Whitey!”)

I mean, we all know that it is much more important to reassure white people that they are not racist, than it is to talk about racism, right?

(This is how the Tea Party gets away with their racially polarizing rhetoric that constructs white people as the most salient victims of racism in the 21st century, and that uses "racist” as a label against the Left to punish people of color and white allies who talk about racism. Because noticing and commenting on racism is racist.)

But you know, the tone argument works in all kinds of contexts.


Sexism (add a side order of mansplaining for a concern troll combo, e.g. “you know, if you want to be taken seriously,here’s how you should really present yourself….”)

Basically, any situation in which a group of less privileged people makes critiques or observations of the dominant group ina way that threatens to upset the dominance of that group, to change the established order somehow, or to at least make the established order seem less virtuous, normal, and inevitable, is a situation in which the tone argument gets pulled out.

Of course, asserting your right to control the “tone” of a conversation (which is actually an assertion of your right to control the content of a conversation and keep it from veering onto topics that make you uncomfortable) is pretty much a perfect example of acting out of privilege, because it rests on the belief that you expect to have your preferences catered to, and that your feelings about difficult dialogues are more important than other people’s feelings about experiencing the effects of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and so on.

Congratulations, you have the privilege of politeness:
(even if you are doing things with your institutionalized power that are very, um, impolite, to put it mildly…)

And you know what you should do with privilege?


(Ending a post with a simple imperative sentence: Not a very nice tone! I know, right?)
Ronald Chmara's profile photoCheryl Trooskin-Zoller's profile photoSheila Addison's profile photoJon Pincus's profile photo
Well said. Unfortunately the people most guilty of this are (a) not going to read this, and (b) blah blah blah, haven't you stopped whining about this already?

The person most consistently doing this in my circles is Eric Raymond, who as far as I can tell seems to think that anyone even mentioning privilege has already derailed the conversation. I really need to just stop following him. 
Here's one of several of his rants:

He even has a label for such people: "kafkatrappers". He goes on to say in one comment:

I’m still not interested in discussing the matter with kafkatrappers. Their tactics condemn them. The correct response to such abusers and mindfuckers is not to try to understand their point of view, it’s to do as much violence to them as you can get away with
There are always going to be people (especially on here) who have drunk the Google Koolaid to the exclusion of all reason. It's a very cult-like workplace. Unfortunately, this allows for very tasteful gang-mentality comments such as the lovely example Noah's posted above. Keeping it classy, people.
+Reine Shimizu - weird, it's the permalink to this post for me. I have no idea.

I think marginalized people of all stripes get the "play nice" message. Don't be threatening, placate, be inoffensive, keep your head down, submit. When you're subjected to institutionalized power, it's a survival mechanism. Which makes it really enraging when someone tries to prescribe it for you, after you've taken the risk to violate that Prime Directive.
An interesting function of the + mentions that had not occurred to me before, +Sai . - my first reaction to your comment is that it feels similar to back in the days of Usenet, when people would deliberately crosspost a response with another group in an attempt to start a flame war. But I realize that's not your intent (or at least it seems highly unlikely, given that you've given me no reason to think that would be of interest to you.) - just the memory it sparked that I hadn't had in a long while. (oh, how I... um... remember you...)

Hard to know what the right etiquette here is. I'd prefer not to have input from someone who calls for doing violence to other people, particularly when I'm likely to be one of those people, but I can see a case for not "talking about someone behind their back."
+Reine Shimizu - no, you're in the right place; I re-edited since now G+ is showing me a different permalink. I assume it's one of their bugs, insert heavy sigh here...
Moz Le
Sai: ESR has repeatedly failed to engage constructively on non-SWM issues, so I think it's entirely reasonable to not bring him in.

One of the tricky things about these sorts of discussions is how specific the form for showing respect for someone else can be. It's very easy to accidentally out someone, or trample their strongly expressed preferences, but the alternative is often a derail into "you are obliged to educate me" which is also bad. I suggest treading carefully (which is good advice around privilege discussions anyway).

One thing about tone arguments is that they often result in people being mutually aggrieved. All sides consider that the others stepped out of line, which means it's often hard to repair the situation. In this case you've got at least four sides: google (being yelled at), Tim et al (people are lynching google!), the nym-rejects (google rejects our nyms!) and the conflict-averse (you're yelling). That's something to think about when trying to come up with solutions...

(hmm, can't +Sai . at the top, autocomplete fail. But it works down here)
The more I see it, the more using a + mention to "invite" a third party into someone else's discussion looks like a "let's you and him fight" tactic.
+Brennan O'Keefe - I'm not comfortable with assuming that motivation, particularly given that I've seen Sai have a preference for thoughtful discussion. I agree it could have that outcome or effect in some cases; on the other hand it's proven interesting as a way of saying "hey you might be interested in this!" to people. I've generally liked it when people have used it with me so far, but of course I'm also not super-famous or in any kind of important position where people might want to "call on" me a lot.
+Moz Le If I've "failed to constructively engage", it's because I think the whole framework of assumptions in which you can say "non-SWM issues" is corrupt and damaging. I reject any separation between "SWM issues" and "non-SWM issues"; there are only liberty issues to which any person of conscience must respond, regardless of skin color or gender or sexual orientation. Carving the defense of liberty up into little identity-politics fiefdoms traps us all into zero-sum games against each other and benefits only the enemies of liberty.
I look at it this way, Google wants your feedback (that is why they have a Send feedback button in the lower right hand corner of Google+.
So, we give them feedback.
They say that's the way it is and won't fix the policy.
We again point out that this policy puts people at risk.
They say if you don't like it we can go some where else.
We say unless we can communicate with our friends on G+ from somewhere else, then there is no other place to go.
Google says that this is not a social network, but an Identity Service.
We say thanks for the honesty, but still this seems evil to us - check your motto.

So how is that lynching? ;-)
Sai: the mobile app I'm using doesn't seem to let me tag people, but ESR has asked people to respond to him on his blog rather than on G+ in the past.

But I wasn't addressing ESR in this case, because this isn't a conversation he appears to want to have. I was addressing Sheila because I think she is right, but unfortunately what I'm often seeing from the people who make the tone argument (and others) is that they don't care. ESR is simply a prominent example. 
Not that that observation is meant to discourage Sheila or anyone else from staying on message. But I'm discouraged, because I can't make people care and even sympathetic ears seem to be becoming throughly sick of any discussion of the google naming policy by now. I don't know what else to do but just leave soon.
+Noah Friedman Wow. Way to not get it at all. Not a single one of the three or four implied claims in your last comment is true, not even the one where I'm supposed to not want people to respond to me here.

The last time I tried to respond to one of your posts here you closed off comments and asked for them to go to your blog instead. If that wasn't a systematic change I apologize for misunderstanding.

As for the rest, I don't want to engage you here in Sheila's post because you have your own soapbox (with a much wider audience, I might add) and I think what you've said there speaks for itself. If anyone else really wants to hear it, they know where to go.
Sheila, this has to be one of the best descriptions of tone argument I've ever read on these here internets. Brava! Gonna bookmark it.
I'm having trouble understanding something here:

"Basically, any situation in which a group of less privileged people makes critiques or observations of the dominant group ina way that threatens to upset the dominance of that group, to change the established order somehow, or to at least make the established order seem less virtuous, normal, and inevitable, is a situation in which the tone argument gets pulled out. "

What does that mean, 'the tone argument gets pulled out'? Does that mean 'the tone argument is inevitably going to be utilized'?

I think the point of your post was to describe something called a 'tone argument', and point out that there is no 'nice' way to talk about issues that threaten the dominance of a group. Consequently, the dominant group is likely to invoke a tone argument when these issues are brought up. Since the tone argument is a false dilemma, and since it is impossible to talk about these issues without having a hostile tone, any efforts on the part of the privileged to use the tone argument are irreverent to the discussion.

Did I get it right? And if so, what about if they don't invoke the tone argument? In that case, the 'tone argument' is a straw man getting attacked and leads us away from the topic at hand. Of course that does not mean the discussion is derailed or that the other side has 'won'... it just means we have to focus on their actual response and continue discussion.....

Finally, maybe I'm misunderstanding, but it seems to me that you are using the tone argument

You wrote:
"But I have to say that honestly, I’ve yet to spot a single comment by a pro-nym person that approaches the level of rudeness I’ve seen from the pro-policy people, who have used terms like “idiots” and “assholes” to describe pro-nym people."

I ask:
Isn't that you, taking the 'tone argument' right there? (Critiquing the messenger, not the message). Oh wait, now I'm using the tone argument....dang...
The 'tone argument' is used as a classic derailing technique - people read personal criticism into a statement not personally intended - this happens frequently in discussions around race, and the conversation then derails to focus on reassuring someone they aren't 'racist' or 'privileged' or whatever.

I can't of course say what Sheila's intent was in the quote you pulled, but I suspect she was pointing out that many of the discussions around the name issue on google+ seem to have triggered some very nasty language from some members of people defending it. Not all, of course. I also, personally, haven't seen any polite discussion from pro-policy people except for a few blanket statements from the Google managers which don't address the concerns. This is also indicative of my social circle, I've had a number of friends loose their accounts, and everyone I choose to add to my circles on here are against the policy for what I consider valid reasons.

It is very possible to talk about triggering issues without having a hostile tone, it happens all the time. The 'tone argument' comes into play when someone chooses to feel personally targeted by critical analysis of their comments or a policy they support. They then feel justified in 'defending' themselves against this 'attack', despite the lack of any actual, personal attack.

If you feel offended by what you've read in this, or any post, I challenge you to ask yourself what your own underlying assumptions are about being called out on your worldview - especially when that conversation comes from someone with a differing perspective from our own.
I think the intention with that quote was to show that while people who are defending privilege feel free to invoke the tone argument, they also hypocritically feel free to make their arguments insulting and personal. It's a "do as I say, not as I do" pattern meant to control discourse.
" why the rest of the world should be forced to comply "... in a post ostensibly criticizing use of over-the-top rhetoric? Huh.

Nobody is being forced to follow facebook's rules, or google's rules, or yahoo's rules, or twitter's rules, or even forced to use any of the above services. There is certainly a good argument to be made that every given system becomes exclusionary based on it's rule set, but inaccurate rhetoric detracts from that argument, which, ironically, was likely one of the intended premises of the original post.

Oh, and all people who disagree with this post are obviously Nazi's. ;)
+Eden Crane , you've got the "inevitable" attached to the wrong clause in your gloss, so no, I don't believe anyone is claiming it's "impossible to talk about these issues without a hostile tone". Let me try to unpack the sentence you quoted as I understand it, though I'm not sure to what extent that confusion has contributed to your read:

The circumstance in question is: a group of less-privileged persons is making critiques and/or observations that touch on the status of the dominant group. (I'll call this "commentary," as in my experience this occurs whether the commentary is critical or observational.)

This commentary questions the power structure present in the status quo. Questions of that nature may do one or more of the following:
* threaten to upset the dominance of the currently dominant group
* change the established order somehow
* make the established order seem less virtuous (or less normal, or less inevitable).

And when that sort of commentary arises, that's when I find I hear the tone commentary most often. It correlates more with how strongly the commentary threatens the status or self-image of the privileged group, not with the actual word choice or structure of the commentary itself.

Note that this does not say anything about how the actual commentary is structured. I've seen the tone argument applied to the driest, calmest analyses I've ever seen; I've also seen it applied to statements that were excruciatingly friendly.

As for the ramifications of the rest of your response, I'll defer to +Tristan Crane and +Margarita M, as it appears they've got that covered.
Thanks to those of you who are doing a nice job of responding and keeping things on point. The clarifications people have offered generally express my intent well.
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