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03 August 2009 @ 09:54 am
Monday Discussion Thread  
So, for discussion today, I present you with this:

"And sometimes when the fail is too big and the pain is too acute? We get sarcastic and snark the stupid. Because you have to do something to ease the trauma when you’re 100 comments in and people are still insisting that the 65 links to respectable websites, 23 bits of anecdata, and the entire weight of history are all wrong…"

The context is here.

So, for discussion, the "tone argument."

One of the ways the "tone" argument can be recognized is by the "carrot" it comes with:

• "We'd admit about your point if you presented it nicer."
• "I have this work I was going to throw your way, is there a problem?"
• "People would listen to your complaint if you weren't so loud."
• "If you want people to care about this, you should learn to be smoother."

So my question: why do the privileged feel that critiquing the tone of the oppressed is a legitimate argument?

Sebastianwildeabandon on August 3rd, 2009 02:24 pm (UTC)
why do the privileged feel that critiquing the tone of the oppressed is a legitimate argument?

I wrote about this a few weeks ago.

Because a lot of the time carefully choosing tone and phrasing to make your arguments more paletable does mean people are more likely to listen to them, and because they don't realise that the oppressed are perfectly aware of this.
rhiechaeri on August 3rd, 2009 08:29 pm (UTC)
not realizing that is just a whole other level of insensitive, which i hadn't thought about. it implies that a privileged person assumes they aren't taught the 'right' way to speak, and so they feel they must be the teacher - which is just rude on so many levels.

why people use it: at least for myself, i grew up with people of my own class and color giving me that argument all the time. i had to say something a certain way to my parents, or teachers, or friends to get what i wanted or needed or they would say i was 'rude' and not listen. it wasn't right then, and i hated it, but i find myself doing it to others.

add in class, color, oppression and other cans of worms on top of it just being rude and condescending for anyone, and it becomes a huge mess.

i have to be very careful not to use that argument in any conversation.
(no subject) - nellorat on August 4th, 2009 01:41 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - chaeri on August 4th, 2009 04:13 am (UTC) (Expand)
Shamelessliminalia on August 3rd, 2009 02:30 pm (UTC)
I think when racism comes up white people feel uncomfortable, and it makes us feel better to be able to displace that discomfort from ourselves and make it someone else's "fault" that we're uncomfortable because they're "being mean". It also shifts the burden of the work. I don't have to work on fixing racism until you work on how you talk to me. And no tone ever suffices, so white people never have to do anything.
(Deleted comment)
Doribluestareyed on August 3rd, 2009 02:36 pm (UTC)
The key phrase here being "on equal footing" of course.
Chasechikchasingtides on August 3rd, 2009 02:41 pm (UTC)
I've become more self-aware of my own use of the tone argument as I've gotten more involved in discussion non-monosexuality and disability and had it thrown at me - being able to see what the tone argument looks like from both sides of the coin, as it were.

First off, having the tone argument used at me makes me ashamed to recognise that I have used it myself. I have found little to be more frustrating or derailing than someone saying, "If you were just politer, people would listen to you and then we wouldn't have to complain about strident minority groups like you," while I'm trying to say, "No, this is my life. I don't get to ever escape this. I'm fucking pissed, you have no idea how much I am watching my tone right now."

Secondly, I think I know where they're coming from, having been there - and I've got to admit, I don't think it's a very good place. It's easier, when you are comfortable in your privilege, to be upset when you're confronted with the facts of your privilege and to lash out at the person handing you those facts. If you, in your place of privilege, can make this person go away, or their arguments null and void, then your comfort, where you are, isn't threatened anymore. If you've never been confronted with the facts of your own privilege, it can be very upsetting to get into a discussion about it - because you don't want to imagine that what you experience is, in fact, privilege.

There is the fact that polite arguments will often get more people to listen to them. This is very true. But it's also true that discussions of privilege often get ugly really fast. Part of it is that words like "racist" and "racism" (ie "That was a racist comment. Can you not say things like that in the future?") are often viewed, by the privileged, as super-combative and angry. They want to be confronted by their privilege on their own terms, where they aren't "bad" and aren't doing anything wrong. I think it might be the weight they push behind statements like, "That was a racist comment."

I am pulling a lot on discussions I've had about privilege outside the realm of race - particularly a discussion where a person insisted that they were afraid of homosexuals and thought it was "icky" but I shouldn't ever use homophobia because it was confrontational - but I've definitely seen the same tactics in race discussion. However, I could be totally wrong on all counts and, if I am, would welcome being corrected.
rhiechaeri on August 3rd, 2009 09:37 pm (UTC)
that sounds a lot like what i have seen, and, unfortunately, said. what i used to hear when someone told me what i said was racist was 'you are a racist and a horrible person and GDIAF'.

i think perhaps what the person really meant was 'hey, i am just giving you some advice. you need to change how you say things.'

(and, hey, even if they did mean the former, what does anyone have to lose by hearing and responding to the latter?)
(no subject) - chipmunk_planet on August 4th, 2009 04:42 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - chaeri on August 4th, 2009 09:55 pm (UTC) (Expand)
M'lisilinaath Thabananaath on August 3rd, 2009 02:42 pm (UTC)
Because it's easier to insist that you would listen "if only" people were more polite than to actually *listen*.

As to why people think that it'll get them anywhere... For people who have privilege being kind and polite in their dealings with slightly more important people has *actually worked for them* - they know that asking their boss for something politely or being nice to the traffic cop is likely to get them things that they wouldn't get otherwise. They also have experience with situations where they as a boss or a slightly-more-important person in some role have given a bit more slack to someone who asked nicely and politely for things.

People who lack privilege fast become aware that often niceness and politeness don't help them, that once they stop being "too angry" they become "not angry enough" and that being nice only means people take advantage harder. But people who have privilege lack that experience.

Also people with privilege often want to try to see the question as some sort of abstract debate that can be had in a calm, polite way, detached from the realities of how anyone's actual life is affected. It is IME possible to have personal discussions in this way successfully (that is, I have had discussions pertaining directly to my life in this way) but it puts an unequal amount of work on the shoulders of those who are personally affected (compared to those who are not) and thus I think should only be done if the personally-affected desire and initiate it. One of the privileges of not being in an oppressed group is this disconnect between "people's actual lives" and "an interesting theoretical question".
Cherylsevoo on August 4th, 2009 05:03 pm (UTC)
Wow, this is really insightful.

One of the reasons it rings so true to me is that I do regularly hear white people trivialize the racial power dynamic as something no more unequal than what a random white person experiences with white authority.
louisedennislouisedennis on August 3rd, 2009 02:44 pm (UTC)
This is may be a very UK-centric answer (its become fairly obvious to me in a lot of the discussions over the Gates arrest that notions of class really are far more ingrained over here than in the States).

But, in the UK at least, vast amounts of privilege hinge around being the "right sort of person". It's a predominantly classist concept, but has nasty impacts on racism "the problem is their culture doesn't..." Of course, one of the things the "right sort of person" doesn't do is raise their voice, in fact the "right sort of person" doesn't need to because the "right sort of people" all agree over anything that might be fundamental enough to make them really angry... Besides only vulgar people raise their voices and the right sort of people try not to be vulgar and everyone is embarrassed for them when they are.

So basically I don't think the privileged feel its a legitimate argument per se. It's an attack on whether the POC is the "right sort of person" because, if they are not, then they are automatically possible to ignore. In a way its not an attack on the argument, at all, but an attack on the POC's right to be noticed. Furthermore if the POC doesn't have a right to be noticed then, of course, its possible to legitimately ignore anything in the argument that might make the privileged person feel uncomfortable.
sapote3: atlantissapote3 on August 3rd, 2009 03:39 pm (UTC)
Well look at Judge Sotomayor. She was rendered instantly suspect, despite being largely the "right" sort of POC, as soon as she was shown to have drawn attention to ethnicity in a speech - in a very polite, non-militant, non-threatening way.
(no subject) - louisedennis on August 4th, 2009 08:30 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - chaeri on August 3rd, 2009 09:46 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - louisedennis on August 4th, 2009 08:33 am (UTC) (Expand)
Postmodern Girl Cartographer: Maintenancemadmoisellestar on August 3rd, 2009 02:44 pm (UTC)
Because people with priveilege don’t (or don’t want to) recognize, that conversations about oppression are not exactly like other conversations.

In most situations, or at least most situations people of privilege are accustomed to, being nice is important and useful. We all learn early that tone really does matter and tone arguments are worth making in a lot of situations. When all parties are on equal footing, rage is usually counterproductive and outright criticism isn't a great way to go about making an argument. Basic marketing skills: you don't piss off people you want to listen to you.

If in a group meeting at work, among equals, you start yelling at your coworkers and telling them what they're doing wrong, they're completely justified in explaining to you that you're going about making your point the wrong way. In that situation, saying ‘you’ll be more effective if you sound less angry’ is a better, nicer, more polite response than ‘get the hell out if you can’t play nice.’ Even in situations of unequal privilege, if that privilege is justified, it's a great principle: don't yell at your boss, or you can expect your opinions to be discounted.

Conversations about oppression are different than other conversations that way. Recognizing that that requires admitting unearned privilege. That’s hard and people with privilege don’t like doing it. So they treat all situations ‘equally’ and act like that’s the enlightened approach.

(deleted/reposted for hitting the button accidentally while still typing)
Postmodern Girl Cartographer: Drama!madmoisellestar on August 3rd, 2009 03:24 pm (UTC)
More personal, as a privileged person
Because when you have privilege you're used to people being nice to you, and that feels better than people being angry with you.

Because when you're trying to see something new, trying to learn about your own privilege, it's not easy to be suddenly responsible for all the jackassery of your race and class, especially the parts you (a decent person making an effort to become aware of the problem) don't participate in. Which isn't anyone else's problem, it's part of the process, but is a legitimate feeling.

Because, as POC know all too well, it sucks to be lumped with your race or class as a generalization, to have your individuality, your personal actions and feelings ignored and subsumed by the general bevavior of your group. And even when you acknowledge the deep irony of whining about that as a white person in a discussion of racism, it still feels crappy.
Re: More personal, as a privileged person - chaeri on August 3rd, 2009 10:01 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - lady_jem on August 3rd, 2009 06:55 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - twirlgrrl on August 3rd, 2009 07:04 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - madmoisellestar on August 3rd, 2009 08:11 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - chaeri on August 3rd, 2009 10:15 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - alias_sqbr on August 4th, 2009 03:15 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - lady_jem on August 4th, 2009 03:53 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - madmoisellestar on August 4th, 2009 05:50 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - alias_sqbr on August 5th, 2009 04:30 am (UTC) (Expand)
S: [DW] 10 shesfearless on August 3rd, 2009 03:19 pm (UTC)
I think it is what they do when they feel cornered about their privilege and so as a last resort critique your tone so they can feel better about themselves and continue to ignore their privilege. Once again, the PoC is the one left with "fault" and the work.
sapote3: atlantissapote3 on August 3rd, 2009 03:28 pm (UTC)
just on how this shows itself in the black/white thing
Because we white people are privileged and that means that we're trained that we don't have to think about race at all, that race is the problem of people who, you know, have a race (as opposed to whiteness, which is a raceless, cultureless default), and that we're doing people who are burdened with the fact of having a race a huge favor if we condescend to discuss this with them.

Many of us have also been implicitly taught that the thing that allows people of different races to live together in any sort of mutual tolerance is politely pretending we don't notice racial differences (people are people, we're all the same underneath) and that black people who don't comply with this polite fiction are headed straight towards "dangerous". I was watching that horrible Angel episode about Gunn and police brutality last night and it occurred to me again that there's a lot of media that presents "good", "safe", or "friendly" black people to be black people who will never in a million years mention ethnic difference to you. While black people who actually say things like "white people sure aren't very aware of systemic police brutality" are often portrayed as, at a minimum, gang members.

I am being snide, but the fact is we're privileged and that means we don't have to ever face up to racism, pretty much ever. So it feels like acknowledging that we're stepping on someone's face is going way out our way and being all progressive and shit, so why are they not being nicer to us? I feel like this all the time, and telling myself that I'm being a jackass only helps sometimes.
Phoenixphoenixprime on August 3rd, 2009 03:45 pm (UTC)
The tone argument *shouldn't* be an option.

The reality, however, is that people often react to tone, body language, and other non-verbal cues far more quickly than they do to what is actually being said.

The other posters have all made excellent statements about why white people think it's an acceptable statement to make (when it isn't), and I agree with what I've seen posted in the comments at the time that I'm writing this.

I will also add, however, that tone *does* matter in interpersonal relationships - and that's ultimately what a conversation is. A hostile, angry tone builds barriers by its very nature. There's a place for discussions about how tone impacts the message being sent - I just don't think the place for that discussion is when you're dealing with someone who is expressing their anger. This is an underlying reason, imo, why the tone argument fails.

Tone arguments also often manage to invalidate - albeit often unintentionally - the very valid feelings of the person they are being used on. Sometimes, we focus on the words and the literal message, when what we really need to do is acknowledge the emotional message being communicated. When the emotional message is heard and validated, it makes it far easier for someone to talk about the cognitive message in a way that facilitates conversation.

kaz? bonne?: spn - napdatenshiblue on August 3rd, 2009 04:50 pm (UTC)
I'm sorry but I don't for a moment believe that the invalidation is unintentional. Rather, I think it's the whole point.

(no subject) - madmoisellestar on August 3rd, 2009 08:28 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - chaeri on August 3rd, 2009 10:20 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - phoenixprime on August 4th, 2009 12:36 am (UTC) (Expand)
Mama Wears Combat Boots: White Peopleemzebel on August 3rd, 2009 05:06 pm (UTC)
Privileged people feel that tone arguments are legitimate because part of having privilege is a sense of entitlement to not having that privilege challenged. Tone arguments are used to silence *any* discussion of privilege, not just ones that are demonstratively "angry".

The "tone" ultimately being criticized are the words saying "you are coming at this from a place of privilege". It doesn't matter if the statement is screamed in all caps with profanity or proffered with an invitation to sit down to a formal tea.
In a heaven of people only some want to fly: angelchipmunk_planet on August 3rd, 2009 05:33 pm (UTC)
Because in many white households, being loud is a prelude to violence. There's a lot more domestic violence and violent child abuse in white households than people will admit to. I think a lot of people (especially women) are triggered when they think someone is angry with them.

For someone who grew up in a violent, racist household like I did, that was taught non-whites were inherently dangerous just by existing, the addition of an aggressive tone can be triggering, and a lot of people react to that poorly.

I don't think it's the job of the POC to deal with other people's issues (especially if it's the person who just said something racist to them), but I do think it's important to keep in mind that triggering might be an issue.
twirlgrrltwirlgrrl on August 3rd, 2009 06:26 pm (UTC)
This is related to what I was going to say. In my WASP household, at least, raising one's voice or showing anger in any way just Isn't Done. The overarching directive on how to act, from birth, is Be Nice. So some of us don't have a frame of reference through which to process anger, and angry words and voices raise up all sorts of emotional noise through which the message truly cannot be heard.

I'm still doing my own work around this and am not trying to excuse anyone else's response along these lines.
(no subject) - bluestareyed on August 3rd, 2009 06:45 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - twirlgrrl on August 3rd, 2009 07:00 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - chipmunk_planet on August 3rd, 2009 07:33 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - twirlgrrl on August 3rd, 2009 08:33 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - rhosyn_du on August 3rd, 2009 08:48 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - nellorat on August 4th, 2009 01:58 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - bluestareyed on August 4th, 2009 02:54 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - chipmunk_planet on August 4th, 2009 03:51 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - bluestareyed on August 4th, 2009 03:53 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - chomiji on August 4th, 2009 09:25 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - nellorat on August 4th, 2009 11:49 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - bluestareyed on August 3rd, 2009 06:30 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Re: the internet and triggering - chipmunk_planet on August 3rd, 2009 07:15 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Re: I don't think you understand what I'm saying. - lady_jem on August 3rd, 2009 08:04 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Re: I don't think you understand what I'm saying. - chaeri on August 3rd, 2009 10:29 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Re: I don't think you understand what I'm saying. - catecumen on August 4th, 2009 12:14 am (UTC) (Expand)
Re: I don't think you understand what I'm saying. - emzebel on August 4th, 2009 03:15 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - chipmunk_planet on August 3rd, 2009 07:36 pm (UTC) (Expand)
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Legs MacGuffinrhosyn_du on August 3rd, 2009 07:40 pm (UTC)
I don't think there is one answer for why people use the tone argument. Just looking at my own shit, and examining times I have used the tone argument or have caught myself wanting to, there are multiple reasons, sometimes all at the same time.

For me, it's pretty much always a panic response, where what I'm feeling is "I'm too panicked right now to be able to hear what you're saying," and either being unwilling to own that it's my shit that's making me freak out or trying to deflect attention from the fact that I am freaking out. Sometimes, also, especially in situations where I'm coming into a discussion already in progress, there's some projection going on. Even though I intellectually know it's bullshit, there is some gut-reaction part of me that buys into the tone argument, and I have definitely walked away from conversations where I'm not in a position of privilege thinking, "maybe if I'd expressed myself in this more calm and rational way, they would have listened," and that sometimes feeds into situations where I am in a position of privilege and I think, "I was too irrational and angry in that other situation, but maybe if I tell this person here not to be so irrational and angry, they'll have better luck."

I'm still too much in a position of trying to unpack my own shit to really be able to speculate on anyone else's, but those are my reasons, as much as I've been able to suss them out, for whatever it's worth.
Sabrinasophiaserpentia on August 3rd, 2009 08:00 pm (UTC)
The hidden side of the tone argument is that when the oppressed are always polite, the privileged majority has a much easier time of happy ignoring them.

But it is a very effective way of forcing the oppressed to spend time deflecting asides and diversions and to make them question themselves.

I think people who invoke the tone argument tell themselves quite earnestly that a quiet rational tone will make an anti-racist message more effective, but overlook that there are times when anger and outrage are the appropriate response to a situation.
Arthur and Kevin's Nellorat: cow_late-earlynellorat on August 4th, 2009 02:10 am (UTC)
I think people who invoke the tone argument tell themselves quite earnestly that a quiet rational tone will make an anti-racist message more effective, but overlook that there are times when anger and outrage are the appropriate response to a situation.

Sometimes, I think it's more that a quiet, rational tone in fact may work better to make allies--but that many, many other purposes may matter more than making allies. And many of those other purposes are better served by anger.

I've learned not to make the tone argument, but because it never works and only gets people upset (what irony!)--not because it was disingenuous, because on my part it never was. It has been most of all based on what upset me vs. wooing me, and secondarily on what has worked for me arguing against stigma that I have experienced. The latter is arguable--the differences in kind of prejudice and so on--but the former really isn't: this works for me, which I guess is something I would know, right? But if the feedback does more harm than good, then it's best I shut up.
facetofcathy on August 3rd, 2009 08:49 pm (UTC)
1) There is no such thing as the tone argument. There are tone arguments of many sorts.

The one time I got toned, I was accused of being too snobby for using formal, polite speech. When People of Colour speak like this, they might hear the word uppity (or get accused of all being too upper class to understand the deep, deep pain of the working classes), this is the tonier than moi argument.

People of Colour expressing clear, simply-worded statements that contain no tumultuous language are often hit with a tone argument, the faux tone argument, if you will.

People of Colour expressing passionate outrage or frustration are often hit with a tone argument, the tone it down argument.

People of Colour expressing personalized hurt and pain, frustration and anger about the way they are spoken to often get hit with a tone argument, the I'll tone it down when you do argument.

People of Colour expressing passionate rebuttals to racist crap couched in lovely polite words get a tone argument, the I set the tone here argument.

2) Tone arguments serve many many purposes. Lots of them have been detailed here. Derailing, deflection, my pain first--it's my feelings that matter, etc.

Here's one that no one has mentioned yet: People of Colour are expected to adhere to higher standards than white people. They have to be smarted, better, much, much more articulate and perfectly polite compared to white people. They have to earn the right into white (polite) society by out-whiting the whites. People of Colour aren't merely expected to conform to ideals of politeness and non-militancy equal to that of the white person they're speaking to, they have to meet that white person's idealized view of themselves as an always kind and respectful paragon.

This insidious idea is in our heads as white people. It is part of how our culture defines white as better, default, normal and desired. It is part of how our culture defines not white as dangerous, violent, dirty, low quality, bad, undesirable and impolite.

In short, it isn't the tone of the voice that's at issue, ever. It's the tone of the skin.
rhiechaeri on August 3rd, 2009 10:32 pm (UTC)
exactly. you also pointed out the big problem with every tone argument and every reason for it: selfishness. it makes the conversation about the privileged, and not about the oppressed.
(no subject) - desertrosedark on August 4th, 2009 08:24 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - bluestareyed on August 4th, 2009 03:12 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - facetofcathy on August 4th, 2009 03:49 pm (UTC) (Expand)