What is tone policing and who does it target the most?

Tone policing is a dangerous psychological tactic that can have harmful lasting effects on the people it’s used against.

What is tone policing and who does it target the most?
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What is tone policing and who does it target the most?

Most major protests receive criticism from people who don’t like the way activists present their message. Even if a protest is ultimately peaceful, there are people who will always be upset with the protest at its core—the fight against oppression. Despite what these people would like you to believe, their issue isn’t actually with the delivery of the message, but with the discomfort they feel when forced to acknowledge the injustices others go through that they are either responsible for or complicit in.

That’s where tone policing comes in.

What is tone policing?

Tone-policing is an ad hominem tactic used in conversation and debate that is based on criticizing a person for showing emotion. In modern-day context, it is often defined as:

When someone (usually a privileged person) in a conversation or situation about oppression shifts the focus of the conversation from the oppression being discussed to the way it is being discussed. Tone policing prioritizes the comfort of the privileged person in the situation over the oppression of the disadvantaged person.

This approach demands that oppressed people communicate their struggles and emotions in ways that don’t make the other party uncomfortable or upset and ultimately deflects from the actual message of the conversation. It is often used in cases of misogyny and racism and affects black women disproportionately more than any other group.

History of tone-policing

Tone policing likely stems from the stereotype that 'women are more emotional than men,' and started gaining notoriety on the Internet as a form of 'cyber-sexism.' In many online conversations between men and women, men will focus on the delivery of the woman’s argument, believing that an argument can only be 'won' if it is done so in a cold and calculated manner. Of course, tone policing is not limited to women and affects all oppressed groups.

Martin Luther King Jr. even touched on this silencing tactic in his 'Letter from a Birmingham Jail,' where he expressed how 'gravely disappointed' he was with the 'white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than justice.' During the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, tone-policing was rampant—there was almost no acceptable way for black people to protest because any form of protest was a disruption of the status quo. Sadly, tone-policing has long been used as a tool of oppression.

Where are we now?

Unfortunately, tone policing is still a prevalent issue, especially when it comes to social justice. After the George Floyd protests, journalists criticized the protestors for the way they chose to protest. Many claimed it wasn’t civil enough, insisting that only 'peaceful protests' work. Instead of recognizing where this anger and hurt came from, people condemned activists for expressing these emotions. Instead of tackling the issue at the source and acknowledging the systemic police brutality in the United States, attention was diverted to the way the people chose to communicate their feelings.

One of the most frustrating parts about this rhetoric is how much of a double-standard it actually is. In 2017, when Colin Kapernick protested police brutality by taking a knee during the national anthem, critics insisted that even this 'peaceful protest' was far too violent. As a result, Kapernick was dropped from his contract and received backlash nationwide, including from former President Donald Trump.

Until people are able to recognize and combat the root of their uneasiness in these conversations, tone-policing will remain as prominent as ever.

Key figures

Two authors that have brought light to tone policing are Bailey Poland and Keith Bybee. Poland wrote a book, titled Harassment, Abuse, and Violence Online, where she goes into detail about the online phenomenon of tone policing and how it is typically directed towards women that are 'lower on the privilege ladder.'

Bybee, who wrote How Civility Works, discusses the history of feminists, Black Lives Matter protestors, and anti-war protestors being tone-policed, and how they’re always told to 'calm down' and 'be more polite' in their social justice strategies. Bybee notes that tone policing creates a problem 'in the style of a complaint' to serve as a diversion instead of tackling the actual injustice itself.

How can I spot tone policing and stop it?

1. Reflect on what you’re saying. Before you address the 'tone' of someone, ask yourself what your intention is there. Are you actually responding to the conversation or are you deflecting?

2. Stop telling people to 'calm down.' Even though it sounds like a harmless phrase, it can be extremely invalidating when someone is expressing frustration over an unjust situation.

3. Normalize expressing negative emotions. It is completely normal for humans to have intense emotions about something personal to them. It is also completely normal for humans to experience anger, fear, sadness, and frustration. Allow people to share these emotions in a safe and nonjudgemental environment. By normalizing these feelings, tone-policing becomes less prominent in society.