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A Refresher Course On Tone Policing

The term "tone policing" is often incorrectly used as a defense against privilege blindness and insensitivity. This is not okay.

Illustration for article titled A Refresher Course On Tone Policing

People sometimes unintentionally make the mistake of reducing the vocabulary that makes up the framework that oppressed people have created to articulate their oppression, to meaningless buzzwords that have lost their purpose; usually through misapplication.

"Tone-policing" is a specific term with a specific meaning, and misusing it directly co-opts the tools that oppressed groups have created to defend themselves against a system that discriminates against them. Misapplying the term dilutes its meaning, and reduces any impact it can have when used appropriately.


It is not okay to use "tone policing" as a blanket defense against people who disagree with you.

It is not okay to use "tone policing" as a shorthand way to silence dissent.

It is not okay to defend being an asshole by claiming that anyone who calls you out is "tone policing."


It is not okay to co-opt the language of the oppressed because someone was mean to you once and it hurt your feelings.

To revisit the lesson:

Tone policing is the act of using the messenger's method of delivery against them, as justification to dismiss the message, when they have a stake in having said message be accurately received. It is the act of disregarding the substance of someone's argument by focusing on the way it was conveyed. A tone argument focuses on delivery as a means to sidestep the issue at hand. It is a derailment.


The reason tone policing is so problematic is that it implies that emotion and logic are mutually exclusive entities. However, it is absurd to expect that people who are discussing their oppression remain calm in the face of challenges to their humanity. Tone policing privileges the feelings of the (implied) bigot, over the humanity of the minority party. It literally requires that the oppressed minority prioritize the majority member's feelings and comfort while fighting to have their own humanity be recognized. It is important to remember this:

Marginalized people often do not have the luxury of emotionally distancing themselves from discussions on their rights and experiences.


It is also important to remember that institutional oppression is not the same as interpersonal discrimination and prejudice. While the latter can be difficult to deal with, only descriptions of the former are "entitled" to make use of these linguistic tools. To use them for anything less is to make a mockery of the many forms of legitimate oppression that disempower minority groups from overcoming their circumstances.

What tone policing is not:

-Requesting that an aggrieved party refrain from personal attacks.

-Requesting that an aggrieved party not derail a discussion.

-Pointing out a logical flaw in an aggrieved party's argument.

Getting called out can painful and difficult, but "[...] in the context of social justice and movement building, if you're feeling attacked, it probably means you're having your privilege challenged, not that you are a bad person."


Discussions about privilege can be difficult to navigate because the nature of privilege is such that one is inherently blind to it. But intersectional thinking helps us to walk in each other's shoes, and recognize the myriad of ways in which other people are not necessarily able to make the same choices that we have been lucky enough to make, or understand why making those choices may be detrimental to others in a way we cannot immediately foresee.

In the end, it is of the utmost importance that we do not negate the impact that language has by misemploying it. The dynamics of power still apply and misusing language in this way is not far off from misappropriation.


If we don't practice the lessons we've learnt, it's easy to forget them. Putting things into praxis takes time, effort and dedication. Everyone messes up sometimes. The important thing is to recognize our mistakes, apologize, and take great care not to repeat them.

[Image h/t: The Tone Police]

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