Tone Policing the “Culture Wars” [Deeper Story]




Today’s post is published over at Deeper Story. It’s part story/part rant, mostly about the way we are so preoccupied with being “nice” that we forget about the work and passion required in ushering in justice.

Here’s how it starts:

Like every other major, the Political Science students had a Senior Seminar course to wrap up their degrees. It was supposed to be a group-centric, student-led thing, allowing the professor a few more coffee breaks and us young learners to teach each other. It was supposed to be grace-filled and civil, but really, who were we kidding- we were Poly-Sci. Our natural state was reactive, our instinct- to go for the jugular.

I was infamously liberal, which didn’t do me any favors at this school. It was a very Baptist College, so the only way I could get a word in edgewise was to brawl and roar, tearing up every opposing argument with a smirk, with a laugh, with the whole class seething by the time I finally shut up.

My class and I never would agree on gay marriage or taxes, the drug war or the Iraq war, and we called each other stupid and naïve and dogmatic. But, as one right-winging friend said to me after an almost unforgivable fight, “There is no need to apologize, Ben. This is what we do.”

And perhaps that’s why we were all such good friends…

Read the rest over at Deeper Story

  • Sheila Warner

    Ben, the difference between the classroom and the world is revealed in what you said about remaining friends even after heated discussions. In the world, disrespect is inferred within the passion. It’s hard to discern the attitude of a person behind the comment he leaves. It also, it seems to me, that disrespect for one’s issue oriented opponent is a badge of honor. I disagree. Also, you KNEW your friends. On the internet, hardly anyone really knows the person behind the comment. This is what I find most frustrating: unfair assumptions. I liked your post, though. It raises good points about vigilance and passion for what will make a more just society.

    • I agree about knowing and not knowing people. My bro Sam says stuff which would get a slap from anyone else, which we call ‘chitty chatty b*llcks’ but I know he’s got a cheeky grin when he says it to me. I’ve learned to ignore some of the more silly stuff on internet forums. It is like going past the building site on the way to town. The workmen always wolf whistle, shouting ‘get ya t*ts out’ , which gets a good two fingered salute from me & expletive banter back & forth, especially if I’m with my girlfriend. Funnily enough, we meet a few of these lads in the local pub. They’re absolute gentlemen & are in no way shape or form racist or homophobic.

  • Hi Ben,
    I agree with you about the guys who like to sit on the judgement throne and berate us all for having opposing views. When the stakes are high, as they are issues that matter most (in my case gay rights, Judaism and Israel) the quality of the debate should be high & passionate. I think that blaming another for having a strong opinion, just because you don’t is weasel like and I have more respect for an honest opponent or someone who calls my argument rubbish & says why. As for tone it depends on what is being said, to whom and on what forum. If a debate gets personal, I just back away as that is a sign your opponent has lost it and is scraping the barrel. You guys on this blog are quite highbrow, compared to other places I’ve been to in cyberspace…

  • I shared this comment over at Deeper Story too…

    The point that we shouldn’t put tone on a pedestal—at least not at the expense of standing up for what is right—is rooted in the belief that there are moral absolutes. I wish this wasn’t lost on those who like to cast “infamous liberals” as moral relativists.

    The bigger irony is that tone policing itself is rooted in a kind of moral relativism. More often than not, what’s really behind the professed concern for tone is a desire to force you to treat my opinion as if it were equally valid. Well, it may not be, if we’re talking about misogyny, abuse, racism, or homophobia. Yes, we should debate ideas and not people. Yes, we should treat each other with respect. But that doesn’t mean all ideas are equally valid.

    It makes me wonder who the real relativists are.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post.

    • Aidan Bird

      Your comment is what I wanted to write, but you said it first. I also notice that tone-policing is most often used as a tool to silence the marginalized or to derail the conversation. As soon as people start to discuss the tone, I know then and there that they’re not engaging the content anymore, and the conversation is going to go badly really quick. This is either when I try to point out the tone-policing, or sometimes, I have to keep myself safe, and so I exit as quickly as possible. When people focus on my tone, they miss the overall message I’m trying to convey, and it becomes a fight about whether I behaved in a way that they find appropriate. (Thus forcing the marginalized to dance in hoops in order to try to be seen as “respectable enough” to engage those who are more privileged then them. Often it doesn’t matter how the marginalized puts their words — if its polite or not — for people will tone police them regardless. This tactic is probably the best way to silence and minimize the concerns and real trouble and issues that the marginalized face today.)