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Tone Policing: What it is and why we need to talk about it

While engaging in discussions about injustice and oppression, what should be given due importance: the facts or the tone? Does the tone provide significant insight into the nature of oppression or is it something that must be ignored and policed?

Tone policing is a conversational tactic used to attack a person’s tone when they seek to voice their concerns in an emotional manner. It diminishes a person’s argument on the grounds of being overly sensitive, emotional, and irrational. It also tries to divert the conversation from the facts presented, towards the manner in which they are presented. It’s basically a technique that tends to silence the voice of the oppressed by rendering their tone as improper, aggressive, or emotional and protects those against whom the complaint of the oppressed is leveraged. It further marginalizes communities, justifies oppression, invalidates the emotions of the oppressed party, and protects the privileged.

Tone policing can sound like anything; from being told to “calm down” to attacking the choice of words used, all with the intent of disengaging from the conversation. Here are a few examples to illustrate what tone policing can sound like.

  • This isn’t the time or place for you to express your emotions.”
  • “You cannot speak to me in that tone.”
  • “You shouldn’t get so angry.”
  • “It would be a lot better if only you said that nicely.”

Tone policing helps the oppressive power to avoid accountability and enables the perpetuation of the unjust acts while acting oblivious to the emotions of the oppressed. It tends to tone down and water down conversations about oppression and injustice under the pretext of “civil conversations”. Tone policers want to avoid conversations that make them feel uncomfortable or ashamed and in the process, essential conversations about oppression either do not take place or are toned down to such an extent as to appear mild and lukewarm. In this manner, voices are lost and the desired discussions never take place.

Tone policing also reinforces and pushes stereotypes about certain people. For instance, if a woman talks emotionally about the oppression she faces because of her gender, she might be labelled as “hysterical” or “too emotional”. These stereotypes take the focus off the discussion and on the negative stereotypes of the concerned person and try to justify their emotions and anger in the light of the same. Women’s anger is often said to be stemming from hormones, their menstrual cycle, and being overly emotional and sensitive. This allows for the problematic issues to be overlooked and enables the oppression to continue and thrive.

By attacking the tone in which an oppressed community seeks justice and voices its problems, tone policers try to take the focus off the important issue and on the manner in which the discussion takes place. The right to talk about injustice lies with the oppressed community and they have the right to talk about it whichever way they want. There is no one formula that needs to be observed while talking about oppression. Tone policing tries to disengage and disregard the emotions of the exploited community and often asks them to “calm down”, which in itself is an oppressive tactic because the emotions of the particular community can be an important testimony about the nature and extent of oppression that was faced.

It’s important to introspect and reflect on the fact that the oppression someone faces is far greater than the listener’s momentary feeling of unease. There isn’t any civil manner to talk about oppression and by emphasising of the tone, the listener might disregard the emotions of the maltreated, and in the process, protect the oppressor and enable the continuation of the injustice. Getting emotional doesn’t mean that the person’s argument is not valid, it only testifies to the fact that the nature of the oppression has deeply affected the person’s life in some manner. It’s possible to get emotional while talking about a very valid and rational fact, one doesn’t invalidate the other.

Rutba Manzoor is a student pursuing Bachelor’s in Psychology from Jamia Millia Islamia.

Edited by: Maria Aqdas

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Written by Rutba Manzoor

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