Shantel examined the smartphone cases, debating which one to buy. A salesperson approached her. “Ma’am, I need to inspect your bag.”
“That’s racist! You’re not inspecting white customers’ bags!”
“They aren’t mouthing off! Leave the store or I’ll call security.”
Tool for oppression
The salesperson used the Tone Argument to shift attention from his racist behavior to the tone of Shantel’s statement. He used his power and position to silence Shantel and deny her access to the store’s merchandise.
- An angry tone is labeled “too aggressive” to hear.
- A quiet tone is labeled “too passive,” easy to ignore or talk over.
- Naming the contradiction diverts attention from the original topic.
- Leaving ends the attempt to speak.
People with power and privilege take control to avoid sources of discomfort. Criticism of tone is backed up with power to set the terms of discussion. Variations of the tone argument include claims that a statement is not academic, erudite, fluent, or articulate enough to be valid. The reverse tone argument praises one statement for being calm and measured, criticizing others by implication.
In the US, Black people are stereotyped as angry, perceived as angry more quickly and penalized for it. The same statement about racism in the same tone from a white person would not evoke the same silencing reaction.
Similarly, women are stereotyped as emotional, perceived as emotional more quickly, and penalized for it. The same statement about sexism in the same tone from a man would not evoke the same silencing reaction.
In general, people with less power are seen as making trouble when expressing truths, boundaries, needs, desires, or other inconveniences for people with more power. While people with more power can be taken to task for their tone, it does not have the same systemic silencing effect.
No tone calm enough
A first-time recipient of the tone argument often takes it in good faith and tries hard to find the “right” tone. With repeated exposure it becomes clear that there is no tone calm enough to express uncomfortable truths to someone with the power to refuse to hear.
When someone uses the tone argument against us, we can first take a moment to internally validate the frustrating double bind and power dynamics of the situation. It is unfair to need to manage this person’s power to silence our truth.
Then, we can evaluate the situation to decide which branch of the double bind to take. Our options include:
- Like Shantel, choose to speak angrily, or find anger spilling out. Anger carries power and emphasis.
- Choose to speak quietly and calmly. Perhaps they are ready to listen this time.
- Name the double bind: “Is there a tone that you would accept and hear my words?” “Can you reflect my message back to me even though you don’t like my tone?”
- Choose to leave the situation or drop the attempt to speak, in fear for our safety or lacking the energy for this battle at this time.
Anger is a primal response to threat, invasion, and harm. When fight-or-flight reactions are interrupted during trauma, anger joins fear as part of PTSD. Anger is a valid, healthy reaction to past and present invasions.
Reactions to anger
While the truth and importance of a statement are independent of its delivery, many people find it difficult to listen to angry statements. It is our responsibility to manage our reactions to anger, especially when we have more power or privilege than the speaker. We can take a moment to check in with ourselves and honor our reaction without invalidating people’s right to speak.
Many of us grow up in situations where anger was an excuse for violence. We might react to the presence of anger as an immediate emergency without realizing why. We can gradually learn to see anger with fresh eyes in structured situations, such as group therapy, where a facilitator holds safe space for both anger and fear of anger. Anger is not an attack in itself.
Respectfully hold space
Next time you are in the presence of an angry person, check with your intuition about whether they might become violent. If yes, take appropriate action to distance and defend yourself. If not, there is no immediate action you need to take.
Rather than defend against anger, we can witness it and hold space for its expression, for ourselves as well as for others. It might feel like standing in a strong wind. The more space we create for anger, the more we respect each person’s truths, boundaries, needs, and desires.
GeekFeminism’s article on the Tone Argument discusses it in detail and has links to other sources of information.