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 http://www.derailingfordummies.com/).


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.

Transphobia/cissexism. http://www.questioningtransphobia.com/?p=2774

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: http://theangryblackwoman.com/2008/02/12/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?)
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