Posts Tagged ‘tone arguments’

OK, let’s get it straight: just because a tone argument is invalid does not mean that all discussion of tone is invalid, or that the tone you choose doesn’t matter.

A tone argument, as you probably know, is an effort to derail a discussion by suggesting that a point of view would be better received if expressed more politely. Since tone does not affect the truth of a position, a tone argument is a logical fallacy. It could be classified as a sub-set of an ad hominem argument (an attack on the person rather than their position). Sometimes, it may also be an appeal to personal authority, because claiming the right to define the terms of a discussion implies social dominance.

Either way, the description of a tone argument is a feminist contribution to the study of rhetoric, and offers genuine insight into the tactics of human interaction. Giving tone arguments a name makes them easier to identify and counter, and helps to discredit anyone would would use such an essentially dishonest tactic.

Notice, however, that the description is extremely specific. The problem is not the mention of tone as such, but its use as a distraction from the main topic of a discussion. The fallacy lies in the attempt to derail, not in the mention of tone.

This is a distinction that people often fail to make. For instance, Julie Pagano jumps from tone arguments to a declaration that “Some of the things feminism has to say are hard – there’s no nice way to say them. It’s also not my job to act pleasing and friendly on all occasions. If you regularly find my tone to not match your interests, feel free to find another source – I won’t be mad. I will be frustrated and contemptuous if you use a tone argument on me.”

Even more strongly, in a blog entry entitled, “Dealing with the Tone Police,” Ragen Chastain writes, “We have a right to all of our emotions, including being pissed off. We have a right to all the vocabulary, including swear words. We have a right to all of the types of activism, which includes using anger as a tool. We are not responsible for other people’s feelings and we don’t have to let the tone police dictate the way that we react to, live in, or work to change a messed up world.”

Both these declarations have been widely linked-to, usually with enthusiastic expressions of agreement that suggest that the view expressed by both is widespread.

To some extent, I can share that agreement. Anger is empowering – especially anger in a good cause. I can see, too, how constantly hearing the same tired rationales for sexism and misogyny being trotted out as though they were new would make anyone want to lash out, all the more so if they feel they are being ignored.

At the same time, such statements not only misinterpret the tone argument (at least as I understand it), but fail to consider why tone arguments are such a frequent fallacy. In a world of pure logic, anyone using a tone argument would instantly lose an argument, and be discredited in the eyes of any audience. But any time you have an audience, you are just as likely to be judged by your tone as your logic, and this is a fact that activists can’t afford to ignore.

I feel like I am stating the obvious here, but tone, like every other aspect of debate, has been a concern of rhetoric for over two millennia. And the consensus of this meta-discussion is that anger generally loses arguments so far as public opinion is concerned. In particular, an angry woman hands her opponents cheap labels like “hysterical” and “strident” to discredit what she says.

(Don’t believe me? Then do an online search or two on tone and rhetoric. Hell, do thirty or forty or a hundred. What I’ve summarized is so basic that I doubt you will find any expert in rhetoric or public speaking who says anything different. This consensus is frustrating, and certainly unfair as it applies to women, but it’s the social context in which we exist).

Look, I’m not saying you’re not entitled to your anger. Sometimes, even the most patient of people have had enough of acting sensibly and want to explode. Even though they know they’re not acting in their own best interests, the temptation to lash out sometimes becomes irresistible.

But don’t lie to yourself. Don’t make the mistake of imagining that, because expressing your anger is potentially addictive that you are doing anything to promote your cause when you express it. Far more often than not, you’re only helping people to dismiss what you stand for so that you justify your emotions.

Most of all, don’t make the mistake of justifying yourself by citing tone arguments. A tone argument is an tactic of attack, to be used when your opponents stoop to derailment, not a concept that defends your own expression of emotions.

Be angry, if you can’t resist. But don’t be surprised if self-expression doesn’t work out like you expect – or if a white, middle-class, middle-aged man like me turns out to have a point after all.

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The older I get, the more I become convinced that most debates are a clash of half-truths. Instead of one point of view being right and the other wrong, almost always each has a limited validity. Necessity or pragmatism may mean that I need to choose a side, but my support is increasingly nuanced and qualified by context.

One of the latest examples of this perspective is my reaction to a discussion on the Geek Feminism Wiki. In response to a guest post, one commenter mentioned that they were put off by the amount of swearing in the post. A second commenter immediately said that the first was using a tone argument, and others quickly joined in.

A tone argument, for those who have never heard the phrase, is one that, rather than addressing what is said, focuses on how it is said. Feminists, for example, are frequently told that they might convince more people if they used a politer tone. Logically speaking, such an argument is irrelevant to a discussion, which means that, by invoking a tone argument, the second commenter was discrediting the first, condemning the objection to swearing as invalid.
What nobody in the ensuing discussion seemed to consider is that both positions might be true depending on context. Yes, by the highest standards of logic, a tone argument is a fallacy. How an idea is expressed does not alter how convincing or accurate it is, and complaining about the tone is basically an emotional appeal – often effective enough at swaying an audience, but unfair in any attempt to have a rational discussion of the issues.

Yet, at the same time, when you consider rhetoric as an art, the way the classical Greeks and Romans did, you would be rash to deny that tone is completely irrelevant. A writer or speaker who prides themselves on being ethical would avoid relying only on a tone argument, but no writer or speaker of any skill would refuse to think of tone as a useful support for whatever they were arguing. If nothing else, the chosen tone would vary depending on the audience. Usually, too, it would vary depending on exactly what response the writer hoped to encourage in the audience.

However, this does not mean you have to practice double-think and believe that both are simultaneously true. Instead, it means that you have a Schrodinger’s cat sort of situation, in which both perspectives are true, but only until you consider the context.

In the case of the argument about swearing and tone argument, the context depends on the motivation of the original comment. Was the disapproval of swearing meant to derail the discussion? Then it was a tone argument, and deserves not to be tolerated. But, if it was a meta-discussion, a discussion about the discussion, then it becomes a valid commentary, and bringing up tone arguments becomes an effort at derailment in itself.

What complicates this example is that, within the context, which is happening is difficult to determine. The written word is generally less subtle than the spoken word, and, unless I am mistaken, the first commenter is not well-known on the Geek Feminism Wiki, so anyone likely to read the exchange probably has no idea what their opinions might be.

Since the commenter writes that, “anyone with a strong point should be able to make it without swearing,” I suspect it is a meta-comment about technique. However, the comment is too short for me to have any strong confidence in that verdict.

Personally, that lack of certainty would have been enough for me to hesitate to mention tone arguments. However, choosing a side is always quicker than considering the possibilities of all sides.

The trouble is, once you support the idea that tone arguments are a fallacy that is particularly used against women, then your position can quickly degenerate in an either-or position in which any mention of tone is something to avoid, regardless of the circumstances. In the same way, insisting that mentioning tone is no more than a matter of technique, you can just as easily condemn the idea of a tone argument as being overly punctilious.

Even worse, taking either position as your own means that you can descend into an endless argument in which there is no right or wrong, not because they don’t exist, but because you are ignoring the circumstances that would determine them.

Increasingly, that is what I notice about many arguments – not just the utter impossibility of ever reaching a conclusion that might satisfy everyone, but, beyond that, the crushing futility of exchanging half-truths. After all, a half-truth is also half a lie.

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