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16 April 2009 @ 09:08 am
the tone argument  
inalasahl: Because There Are Not Enough Spoons in the World

I'm posting this link because this is probably my own biggest stumbling block: the tone argument. Because of my own history with bullies and the way we handled conflict in my family, angry people scare me. I am hugely conflict-avoidant. I love intellectual debate, but once emotion gets in, I want to check out.

Predictable as the sunrise, some white person somewhere in a discussion on race will say, "But you'd get progress on racism/more allies/more sympathy/whatever if only you didn't speak so angrily!" Surprise, being the object of racism makes people pissed off. Dealing with clueless white folks trying on their new brilliant argument that POC have only heard for the 5,675th time this week is annoying and tiring. And when you, the white person, demand that POC modulate their tone to you when they are talking about how racism makes them feel, you are asserting your privileged "right" to control the conversation about racism. And you are making it their responsibility to make sure you are comfortable. Think about that for a second.

You are asking people of color to cater to your wishes. In a discussion of racism. What is that if not white supremacist?

So the next time you feel like bringing up someone's angry tone, step back and chant, "It's not about me" for a while until the feeling passes. Maybe a long while.
 
 
 
attack_laurel: bun:  angry orangeattack_laurel on April 16th, 2009 02:18 pm (UTC)
Also, if people listened when the statements were politely made (about, oh, 1,000 years ago /sarcasm), getting angry wouldn't have been necessary. But if it's stated politely, then it's "well, it can't be such a big deal if you're not that upset about it".

Oh, just typing that makes me angry. :) Privileged dismissal at its finest.

"Why are you all so angry?"
"Because it's important enough to get angry over!"
Chasechik: white maskchasingtides on April 16th, 2009 02:26 pm (UTC)
I found that my nervousness is because I see the anger being directed at me. (I am also not very good at dealing with anger - my own or other people's, in real life or on the internet. Anger, generally, scares me. Anger directed at me, scares me more. But that's my issue, not theirs.)

However, one thing that I found helped (especially when I have a kind of general fear of anger to begin with) is remembering what it's like to be hurt by prejudice myself. (I don't mean to start an oppression Olympics, but remembering what feeling justifiably angry is myself reminds me faster than anything that this is about PoC and I have no right to talk about tone.)
(Deleted comment)
(no subject) - chipmunk_planet on April 17th, 2009 01:35 am (UTC) (Expand)
That Chick with the Evil Laughsparkymonster on April 17th, 2009 02:54 pm (UTC)
I found that my nervousness is because I see the anger being directed at me. (I am also not very good at dealing with anger - my own or other people's, in real life or on the internet. Anger, generally, scares me. Anger directed at me, scares me more. But that's my issue, not theirs.)

You may want to consider why it is you assume there is anger and that the anger is directed at you as an individual.
(no subject) - chasingtides on April 17th, 2009 03:35 pm (UTC) (Expand)
arantzainarantzain on April 16th, 2009 02:35 pm (UTC)
I still have major issues with this myself; thank you for the post.

I do wonder if civility has value as a tool when white activists call out other whites who exhibit privilege. I don't know the answer to that, or if that's the wrong question to ask, but it's a thought.

It would be nice if each ally and activist could choose the tone that suited them best in discussions of race, and trust that they'd be heard equally. I definitely don't think that's the reality for POCs, though.

Here's some more privileges to add to my mental list:

I can choose not to be angry in discussions of race, because most of my life, I've been insulated from the system's abuse.

I can choose not to be angry and certain privileged audiences will respect and listen to me more for it because they believe I am objective or disinterested.

I can choose not to be "angry" and not be discounted or spoken over by others who take my politeness as an invitation.
Shamelessliminalia on April 16th, 2009 02:40 pm (UTC)
I do strongly think civility has its place when white activists call out other whites. Some of the worst behavior I have seen has come from some white allies who seem to think that jumping on other white people the hardest gets them extra ally points. Of course there are some people who are never going to get it no matter how nice and patient you are, because they are heavily invested in not getting it. But it's my opinion that since white activists probably can afford a little more patience in dealing with the clueless, that's the tactic we ought to try first.
(no subject) - chipmunk_planet on April 16th, 2009 03:26 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - arantzain on April 16th, 2009 11:46 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - arantzain on April 16th, 2009 11:46 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - liminalia on April 17th, 2009 12:05 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - chipmunk_planet on April 17th, 2009 01:15 am (UTC) (Expand)
helehlbr on April 16th, 2009 02:39 pm (UTC)
Also, very often the people accused of sounding angry don't sound angry at all from the outside of the discussion. Not that they don't have the right, but I've found the tone argument not only is a straw man, but very often is a ridiculous one as well.
Shamelessliminalia on April 16th, 2009 02:41 pm (UTC)
True!
The person who: Marlene Dietrichdancesontrains on April 16th, 2009 03:03 pm (UTC)
Often, I've seen POC who could not have been more polite in their statements being ripped apart by white people.
Astraeaacrimonyastraea on April 16th, 2009 04:22 pm (UTC)
This.

Our concept of what is "polite" or "civil" is heavily influenced by our privilege. By using the "tone" argument, white people are basically saying that a response to racism is more hurtful/powerful/impolite than the racism itself. It's so often used to maintain the power imbalance that keeps white people privileged... because they can be racist and not be challenged on it because they were considered "polite."

The first few posts on Scalzi's blog about RaceFail were the BEST example of this happening.
(no subject) - attack_laurel on April 16th, 2009 04:57 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - hlbr on April 16th, 2009 11:07 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(Deleted comment)
facetofcathy on April 16th, 2009 03:04 pm (UTC)
The impression I've come away with from my reading around Racefail '09 and past issues, many of which are referenced in the Not Enough Spoons piece, is that a genuine tone argument, that is, someone who is honestly saying, the form of your argument causes me pain, is vanishingly rare.

I strongly feel that very nearly everyone making tone arguments are deflecting the content of the argument, not the form. They are saying, you are making me uncomfortable, but it isn't the 'yelling' that's doing it. My belief as to how much of that is subconscious waxes and wanes, but I think we are collectively letting too many people off the hook with the term clueless.

Usually, when I get 'toned', I get called stuck up or snobby for using formal, unemotional language, so there is no tone that satisfies, as the post of Zvi's that is linked in the spoons piece makes clear.
In a heaven of people only some want to fly: angelchipmunk_planet on April 16th, 2009 03:37 pm (UTC)
I strongly feel that very nearly everyone making tone arguments are deflecting the content of the argument, not the form.

Yes.

My belief as to how much of that is subconscious waxes and wanes, but I think we are collectively letting too many people off the hook with the term clueless.

Argh, I can't find it ... I just recently read something talking about the stages of moving from racist to anti-racist ... the first one really was 'clueless': the person who honestly does not see the problem of institutionalized white supremacy and takes any mention of racism as you would if someone told you that aliens were in control of Earth.

I have been in that mindset not all that long ago, so I do have compassion on them. (That doesn't mean they need to stay ignorant, though!)
(no subject) - hlbr on April 16th, 2009 03:39 pm (UTC) (Expand)
In a heaven of people only some want to fly: angelchipmunk_planet on April 16th, 2009 03:40 pm (UTC)
As someone with a chronic disability, I really appreciated the link to and analogy with the Spoon Theory.
Shamelessliminalia on April 16th, 2009 03:42 pm (UTC)
Interesting. On someone else's blog I got criticized for using the spoon metaphor in racism discussions.
(no subject) - chipmunk_planet on April 16th, 2009 03:50 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - liminalia on April 16th, 2009 06:56 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - chipmunk_planet on April 17th, 2009 01:18 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - pinkpolarity on April 17th, 2009 07:36 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - kazaera on April 17th, 2009 09:47 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - kazaera on April 16th, 2009 04:30 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - arantzain on April 16th, 2009 11:52 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - pinkpolarity on April 17th, 2009 07:44 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - alias_sqbr on April 17th, 2009 09:10 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - dirty_diana on April 17th, 2009 03:56 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - chipmunk_planet on April 17th, 2009 06:35 pm (UTC) (Expand)
*icon retroactively aimed at self* - alias_sqbr on April 22nd, 2009 04:16 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - sparkymonster on April 17th, 2009 02:57 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - liminalia on April 17th, 2009 03:01 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - kazaera on April 17th, 2009 09:59 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Karrin Jacksonkarjack on April 16th, 2009 03:41 pm (UTC)
The tone argument is such a powerful tool in the racist arsenal. You can use it to derail the conversation. You can use it to excuse your own lack of activism, and you can even use it to indefinitely postpone ever giving a damn and it will never be your fault!

All you have to say is that you won't throw your hat in the ring until you are reassured by every single POC that they don't mean whitey any harm. So if you want Monsieur Blanc's support, you 'good' ones had better get your 'bad' ones in line.

Yeah, I've had that discussion. It was the nail in the coffin of my gentle patience when it comes to the tone argument.

I don't think civility and anger are mutually exclusive. If someone saying 'be civil' really means 'don't be angry' it has nothing to do with civility and everything to do with, once more, trying to control the dialog.

love, play & inquirytrochee on April 16th, 2009 06:37 pm (UTC)
"If someone saying 'be civil' really means 'don't be angry' it has nothing to do with civility and everything to do with, once more, trying to control the dialog."

yes, yes, yes. I was advising a friend on consensus process, and I realized that the one piece of advice he needed was the reminder that consensus-process doesn't mean nobody's angry, it just means that everybody's agreed to listen.
Keilexandrakeilexandra on April 16th, 2009 11:30 pm (UTC)
I don't think civility and anger are mutually exclusive.

Oh, this. I used to think I had a problem with tone--as a PoC, looking from the outside at both PoC and white people--but increasingly I think my issue is more with incivility. You have a perfect right to be angry, but IMHO no one has a right to attack someone else ad hominem. And I refuse to give PoC any leeway on basic civility, any more than white people, because it's basic for a reason.

I suspect this may not be a popular sentiment, especially since as a PoC I'm supposed to side with the "PoC," but so be it.
(no subject) - sparkymonster on April 17th, 2009 02:53 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - keilexandra on April 17th, 2009 03:16 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - sparkymonster on April 17th, 2009 04:06 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - keilexandra on April 17th, 2009 05:23 pm (UTC) (Expand)
mod note - liminalia on April 17th, 2009 05:31 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Re: mod note - keilexandra on April 17th, 2009 05:37 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(Deleted comment)
(no subject) - keilexandra on April 18th, 2009 01:41 am (UTC) (Expand)
louisedennislouisedennis on April 16th, 2009 03:45 pm (UTC)
I grapple with the tone argument because I don't believe being a PoC in a conversation about racism should be a carte blanche for bad behaviour (it shouldn't excuse hatefilled language against some other group - for instance) - which counters to the tone argument often get close to implying.

But it seems to me, in many of the examples of the "tone" argument that get shown, the PoC is rarely being impolite. The "tone" argument often looks to me like a white person trying to redefine "polite" to include "you don't ever call me on anything" - for instance one of the most common instances where the tone cards gets played seems to me to be the moment the word "racist" is brought into the conversation - no matter how carefully the PoC has tried to frame the word so it applies to an action or statement rather than the white person themselves.

So mentally I kind of think of the tone argument as a "if you think someone is being rude in a conversation about racism, please do a reality check to make sure they are actually being rude and then consider whether that rudeness/anger is justified by the context before you open your big mouth and insert your foot."
arantzainarantzain on April 16th, 2009 11:55 pm (UTC)
. . . a white person trying to redefine "polite" to include "you don't ever call me anything."

Yes, this really rang a bell hard for me. Thank you.
naked and articulatesihaya09 on April 16th, 2009 04:17 pm (UTC)
Thanks for this. I still struggle with this a lot.
love, play & inquirytrochee on April 16th, 2009 06:51 pm (UTC)
thanks for posting this.

As people in this comment thread talk about their relationship to the tone argument as used contra PoC and contra white allies, I find myself thinking about the double standards.

arantzain mentioned "I [a white person] can choose not to be angry" in various contexts as new items on the privilege checklist, but from where I stand (another white person, and especially a male white person), I realized that I can choose to be angry. As I've seen it, the "Tone Argument" is almost always used against PoC, rather than white people -- perhaps because white people don't speak up, but also precisely because the "black people are angry" stereotype is so effectively silencing.

Favorite example for the day: a white man viciously mocking a racist, homophobic 'protest'" is considered a funny warrior for truth. A PoC (let's say a light-skinned black man who 'passed') undercover in the same situation, and returned with sarcastic mocking of the wingnuts might be criticized an angry (and possibly kooky) separatist, but that criticism cannot be leveled against mr. ginandtacos.
Shameless: cheerliminalia on April 16th, 2009 06:54 pm (UTC)
Such a good point!
(no subject) - arantzain on April 16th, 2009 11:56 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - pinkpolarity on April 17th, 2009 07:49 am (UTC) (Expand)
Steffirecat on April 16th, 2009 09:51 pm (UTC)
(For the record, I am white.)

"But you'd get progress on racism/more allies/more sympathy/whatever if only you didn't speak so angrily!"

By which they are actually saying, "You don't get to speak for any reason other than to educate white people about your issues."

Has it ever occurred to the people making these remarks that a POC might speak angrily simply because they are angry and want to express it, and that a POC might speak without the specific goal of making progress on racism?

By using that statement, a person is also saying "Progress on racism is ours to give or not as the whim strikes us. So don't you dare be nasty, or we won't!"

Furthermore, do people really think that most POC make it to adulthood without knowing very well how to speak to get the sympathy of a white person? For people who are oppressed, it is a matter of survival to learn to speak the language of the oppressor. So if a POC does speak angrily, in a space that is likely to have white people in it, chances are they know exactly what they are doing. There are a lot of reasons why a POC might do that, but "I didn't know it would piss off the white people" is not likely to be one of them, IMO.
A monstrous ramblingbibliofile on April 17th, 2009 10:40 am (UTC)
...and that a POC might speak without the specific goal of making progress on racism?

Who knew?!

Furthermore, do people really think that most POC make it to adulthood without...

The huge difference in time scale is the source of many of these problems, I think: To the Clueless Learner, it's all quite new, so they're full of "Have you thought of . . ?" thoughts. When in fact the POC has dealt with it their whole life, so of course they've already thought of it -- back when Clueless Learner was still in diapers.