“The Tone Argument” is part of the activist rules of engagement. It negates “I don’t like your tone” as an argument. “You might have some good points, but I’ll only listen when you stop shouting”.
I can see why this has arisen as a rule. Oppressed groups have a history of having it used against them – the word “uppity”, especially used against Black folk, is an example of this in action. Or loud women having different standards applied to them than loud men – obnoxious and pushy. It’s therefore a function of privilege – a way for privilege folk to stay cosy and safe in their ivory towers. “Don’t challenge me! Stop shouting, you’re disturbing me and getting above your station!”
But I find it a terribly frustrating rule – I don’t want to argue with people who are shouting. I want to have reasonable debates, free from hostility and anger. If you like, I can play the Mental Health Card – it makes me anxious and stressed. Even on the internet. It makes me want to hide and disengage. I don’t think this is always because I’m not facing my privilege. Sometimes, I expect it is. But a lot of the time, it’s an immediate need to prioritise my happiness and health over continuing to debate. That’s a real problem: these are important things and I want to learn. But if anger happens, I leave. And there’s no way for me to say “can we be polite, please?” without inviting the Tone Hammer.
I’m not sure how to resolve this. On the one hand, we do need the tone argument to empower us to keep shouting when the world wants us silent. At the same time, it creates a new hierarchy, one built not on privileges and experiences but personality. It favours people who are confident, loud and resolute, and excludes people who are quiet, nervous, shy, uncertain, or still dealing with problems of being socialised as, i.e., a woman to keep passive in her place, or burdened with anxiety problems or a history of domestic abuse. Or one of the many other reasons that someone might object to being shouted at or in a loud and threatening environment.
Because this isn’t always linked with an Ism, I think it can be hard for people to see. “Shy” isn’t a protected group. In some cases, you even see people saying that because person A is of a more oppressed group than person B, person A can never be threatening to B. I don’t know how far that is true, though I know we all believe it. I think that in a small group, personality divorced from social group is always going to be a factor, even though upbringing and intersectionality will still play a role. They tell me that I’m shy around men because I was socialised that way, which is a convenient get-out clause for my low confidence in those situations. So maybe in a room of men, if I ended up being quiet we could blame the Isms. But it happens in rooms of ladyfolk too, and as a relatively well-to-do white lady I usually don’t even place in the Oppression Olympics of any given room. At that point, I do believe that it’s more about people who’ve levelled up in Activist having the advantage over those who haven’t – knowing the vocabulary, having the confidence, knowing the authors and being able to shout loudest. But how, at that point, do I say “I can’t listen to you properly when you shout, because I start feeling small and confused and sad” while also conveying “I want to hear what you are saying, but if you keep saying it like that I won’t be able to”, and how to do it respectfully?
Maybe you can’t. But I keep seeing activist debates die when someone with the most strident opinion comes in, and you can almost feel everyone else disolve and run away into the cracks with an implied, mumbled “I respect your lived experience and your right to angry expression against a dominant culture…”. And that’s a silencing tactic like any other.
How do we build equitable movements which invites debate from all its members? Where more oppressed people are empowered to be honest and be heard, and yet this same empowerment doesn’t disempower others from being involved? How do we keep what’s great about the tone argument, while also making sure our spaces welcome quiet people…?