La La How The Life Goes On

Chief of the Tone Police

Posted on: September 20, 2015

My response to racism is anger. I have lived with that anger, ignoring it, feeding upon it, learning to use it before it laid my visions to waste, for most of my life. Once I did it in silence, afraid of the weight. My fear of anger taught me nothing. Your fear of that anger will teach you nothing, also. — Audre Lorde

I had never heard of the term Tone Policing until recently. Which is ironic considering that it has been my stock-in-trade for decades now. Tone policing is the culturally-ingrained habit of focusing on and critiquing how something is said rather than on the content of the statement. The great benefit of being a tone police officer is that you get to then dismiss or ignore what the other person is saying, whether it is true or not, simply because you don’t like how she said it.

Tone Policing is separate from those valid lessons you teach your kids about not sounding like jerks, and separate from political strategy and tactics which often require candidates to speak the language of the voters they are trying to reach. Tone Policing often and primarily occurs in discussions of social issues. Someone will say something. Their words and demeanor obviously demonstrate that the topic is a raw one for the speaker. They will express anger, disappointment, perhaps even rage. Cue those of us for whom the deeply-ingrained notion that conflict is bad, that discussing topics vociferously is impolite, that anything that makes us feel uncomfortable is to be avoided and judged negatively. We jump in to “tone police” the discussion. To call out the angry person for being angry. For not speaking in a more appropriate manner. We get multiple “likes” online and IRL in support of our efforts to “keep things civil.”

What we need to recognize is that this compulsion to erase anger from any debate is counterproductive. Righteous anger has fueled almost every major social movement in world history. What’s more, the people speaking from anger have a right to the same rainbow of emotions that you and I take for granted as non-participants.

Think about all the great social movements for change in our recent history. Let’s talk about the women’s suffrage movement. We’re all behind it now, but the stark reality of that time was that the “suffragettes” were considered dangers to decent God-fearing people everywhere. They were beaten in the streets. Called terrible names. Shunned by polite society. They disrupted a presidential inauguration. They protested in front of the White House during war time. They were absolutely considered enemies of the State. To be for the female vote was to be considered a woman of ill-repute. To be related–or heaven forbid–married to one, was the end of life as you knew it.

Women who had been arrested for that protest in front of the White House in 1917 lived through this:

Under orders from W. H. Whittaker, superintendent of the Occoquan Workhouse, as many as forty guards with clubs went on a rampage, brutalizing thirty-three jailed suffragists. They beat Lucy Burns, chained her hands to the cell bars above her head, and left her there for the night. They hurled Dora Lewis into a dark cell, smashed her head against an iron bed, and knocked her out cold. Her cellmate Alice Cosu, who believed Mrs. Lewis to be dead, suffered a heart attack. According to affidavits, other women were grabbed, dragged, beaten, choked, slammed, pinched, twisted, and kicked. (source: Barbara Leaming, Katherine Hepburn (New York: Crown Publishers, 1995), 182.)

These woman had a righteous anger. An anger at the fact that the most uneducated male in the country was considered more worthy of a vote than any female. That by accident of birth, women were automatically excluded from participating in our nation’s democracy.

Within the women’s movement there was also righteous anger from Black women who also wanted the vote and who were told to march at the back of the parade, To table their suffrage goals in order to not incite opposition from the Southern legislators who feared additional Black people on the voting rolls. Ida Wells-Barnett, founder of the Alpha Suffrage Club, not only did not acquiesce to the demand to march at the back or bow out, she put herself right in the middle of the white ladies from the Illinois Delegation. She would not comply with the segregation request from her supposed white sisters. White sister suffragists who themselves could not tolerate the anger and unreasonableness of Ms. Wells-Barnett, who spoke out forcefully for the women’s vote for ALL women.  So even within the suffragist movement, full of already scandalous women, there was tone policing of women who had every right to be angry. Even while they themselves were criminalized and villainized, the white women of the Suffragist movement still found a way to tone police their Black compatriots by taking issue with their “impolite” behavior and demeanor.

Suffrage is but one example. I can call to mind about twelve others, just from my own personal experience. Where I felt like the person speaking was really making things “unnecessarily tense.” Until I realized that it was only ‘unnecessary” in my mind because of the luxury I had of never having to experience their reality.

I’ll take it from the Jewish angle. Jews are constantly accused of “making everything about the Holocaust.’ Geez Louise, it happened, what?, a hundred years ago! Why are those people still talking about it? The emotional fragility they display is just mind-boggling. No one here now in this town was ever in a camp either as a prisoner or a guard. So why can’t they just get over it? Why can’t they move on? Why do they always have to raise the tension level in the room when someone calls something else a holocaust? Amirite? Geez, the sensitivity is just ridiculous. Why do they flip out when someone makes a joke about a Jewish stereotype? It’s funny! Laugh a little! So much angst and anger from such a small segment of the population. For the love of God, it’s ridiculous how we let them hijack everything with their “history” and their “legacy of pain” from that history. We have to hear ad nauseum about Israel. They get so worked up and mad if you invite the wrong person to speak at their temples. If the wrapping paper inadvertently shows a swastika in the design. I mean, just stupid minor nonsense sets them off. Just a bunch of angry whiners, if you ask me.

I invite you to substitute the group of your choice in place of “Jews” and tell me honestly if you have never thought something along these lines when confronted with that group’s anger (however non-righteous you consider it to be). It’s okay to be honest; I won’t make you fess up in the comments. But do be honest. The desire to Tone Police is rampant in our culture. The desperate need to not feel the discomfort of difficult conversations. The desperate, almost pathological, need to believe that discussing racism causes racism. That calling out racism is in and of itself an act of racism.

So what I’m going to suggest in this post is that, for those of us for whom this sounds familiar, that we pledge that we will, just one time, resist the urge to do this to others with whom we are in discussion. That if the “tone” of the conversation is making us uncomfortable, that we just let it happen. If folks aren’t “keeping it civil” (by which we mean polite, which is in all honesty a wildly different animal than civil), we just let it happen. If we feel so tremendously uncomfortable and irritated and upset by what is being said, that we disable our immediate impulse to “fix” the conversation and just let it happen. That we sit with that discomfort and ruminate on why the discomfort exists. What I imagine many of us will find is that we think it is the worst thing in the world to be accused of racism, even in a non-personal way. That word is the third rail of all social conversations. It will freeze a discussion and ruin friendships. But what I’m coming to realize is that there is indeed something worse than being accused of racism, and that is experiencing racism and being told you are not. Being told you are imagining it. Being told you are too sensitive. Being told you need to lighten up. Being told you hate America. And worst of all: being told you can’t be angry.


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