You’re not being tone policed, you’re just an a**hole

I spoke in a recent blog about how activism has become a competitive pursuit – for many internet activists there is a lack of interest in building relationships – challenging is a sport, a form of one-upmanship intended for the onlookers to rate the exchange rather than for the participants to meaningfully explore their own positions. It is about haves and have nots, about winning – a model where somebody needs to be laying in the dust while onlookers cheer and clap.

Some try to justify their behaviour by saying people only learn through force – but my experience of human beings does not bear this out. I believe, as social creatures, that everything we learn and every time we change this happens in the context of relationship. Collaboration comes naturally to most of us if the conditions are right, and we are at our best when we bring people along with us. I’d go further and say the “people only listen when you assert your power” is no different from the “spare the rod, spoil the child” idea that has ruined so many childhoods, or the patriarchal “power and control” model that characterises many abusive relationships. Both of these are evidence of a lack of relationship skills.

People can be horrible sometimes, but they also can be kind. Creating an environment where patience and empathy flourish is not just some “hippy shit” that will never work, it’s one vital aspect of building a movement – not the only one, perhaps, but still important. The emphasis on force within activism is a very competitive, dominating model that also privileges what are traditionally seen as more “masculine” behaviours over more “feminine” ones.

When you try and invite people in a closed activist space to be kind, to be gentle and friendly with each other, a whole bunch of well-rehearsed activists’ hands shoot up: “Er, I know this one! It’s tone policing!” That’s an important idea that has been appropriated to mean “I have carte blanche to be shitty with you if I can claim my cause is morally superior”. The important concept of tone policing now gets misused, or at least over-used – as long as folks think they have right on their side, they are allowed to be as verbally violent as they like. It’s that sense of entitlement that concerns me, because a sense of entitlement can so often lead to an abusive act.

Don’t we all think we’re right more often than is actually true? Don’t we all focus on our own disprivileges and remain a little too oblivious to other people’s? Aren’t we, essentially, subjective and fallible? So much of the violence done in this world occurs under the guise of “but I’m the real victim here”. Does the world really need any more of that? Couldn’t we just, perhaps, try not to destroy other people through our interactions with them, just in case there’s the slightest chance we haven’t got all the information, just in case our judgement isn’t as perfect as we like to think it is?

Because although it is true that “polite and civil” can often be code for “oppressive” this does not necessarily mean that disproportionate verbal violence is always legitimate in any situation, and sadly this is the way the “tone” argument is heading.

This is not about tone policing

Two different things have got muddled lately, so let’s untangle them. What I am talking about here is not the unquestionable right, for instance, of the black people of Ferguson to be angry and violent, in reaction to a clear and prolonged and deadly abuse of structural power. I am not asking the people of Ferguson to be “polite and civil” or to hug a policeman. I would not in any way condemn the black people of USA if they rose up and started a revolution, quite frankly, because for them to have any respect for law or civil obedience would seem nonsensical to me. Rioting and outraged violence is entirely proportionate to the issues people are facing. So sure, I am very tired of white people calling for calm. I’m not calling for calm.

But this blog isn’t about Ferguson. It’s about activists, between ourselves, on and off the internet, and how disproportionately and clumsily we often behave. I’m wondering if we can stop treating this like mortal combat, and centreing our own disadvantages to the degree we ignore other’s vulnerabilities. Our assumptions, our lack of awareness of other’s difference, our disproportionate responses, our personalisations, our lack of management of our own feelings, our lack of generosity and tolerance for people’s mistakes, all make for great sport but a harsh social environment. And of course that harshness replicates and perpetuates itself. Note I’m including myself in this, because once a culture becomes established, it influences everyone; I know I’m not immune.

Sometimes, we need to learn the difference between being tone policed and just being an asshole and getting called for it. And yes, there are asshole cis feminists, asshole trans folks, and every other flavour of asshole out there making activism a misery.

Leaving the bear pit

Words slung carelessly at each other can be violent and oppressive – not just to the recipients, but to some onlookers too, until the atmosphere becomes so toxic that those of us who are sensitive cannot breathe in it and we start to entertain serious thoughts of giving up activism, leaving the internet and instead making the world a better place through basket-weaving.

This has become an access issue – only those with robust mental health and low sensitivity or trauma that’s so entrenched they’ve dissociated from it, need apply.

My Facebook feed has become a bear pit, where people who could be working together are constantly jumping down each other’s throats. Please note: this kind of crass telling off is not the same as challenging – challenging is good, but doing it in a way that the person can hear, rather than in a way designed to put a person down and make them feel so small they instinctively want to fight their way back up, well that’s a skill – one I strive for, but admit I don’t always manage. I understand that it’s not always easily done, but let’s not pretend because it’s difficult that it isn’t valuable.

We need to work on our abilities to be together across difference, not just our ability to create more and more fractures.

Let’s also not pretend in this emerging dialogue about the necessity of force in activism that war is the only route to change and love solves nothing. Mars should not always be given priority over Venus. Let’s bring a little love back to activism this yuletide.

5 thoughts on “You’re not being tone policed, you’re just an a**hole

  1. singingbirdartist

    oh just so much YES!!! to this post…I got targeted for supporting non-violent direction action – not always, l support the women of Kobane wholeheartedly – but about 90% more of the time than younger, shoutier activists do. I’ve campaigned for a long time and creating a positive circle of support where learning is encouraged has always worked best for me. Coming to Facebook very late [18 months ago] l have been so shocked by what levels of verbal abuse are accepted in so many arenas – the pages are very much fighting spaces. l’ve backed off again and am choosing very carefully what l work on and with whom, because the process is really important to me. Making something accessible to the bruised is more important to me than most pages allow for, keeping the space respectful and positive builds a stronger framework for everyone. Yes, people need to vent, but being allowed to damage others turns us into bullies; witnessing a group allow verbal assault turns us into collusive bystanders abandoning someone who is still human. Remaining polite to trolls is an artform and requires a lot of slack, easier to cut off their rants, but remaining polite to our allies is needed if we are going to respect our common humanity. CONFRONTATION originally meant meeting face-to-face and seeing each other in-the-whole. If we could see the rubbish day at work, the upset colostomy bag, the shouted at in the street, the micro-aggressions and small troubles face daily, we might remember to cut some slack, or keep our sense of fairness by not turning the heat up on an argument.
    Anyway, another great post!

  2. captainglittertoes

    I 99% agree, but I do think that it’s important to recognize how/when the concept of tone policing IS important. Tone policing is important to recognize: it’s when a person faces oppression not only for the prejudice/discrimination they’re facing, but in a need to “be nice” when trying to contest it… when someone in a privileged group could say the same thing, or with a worse tone, and be heard. The real bitterness and trauma from oppression should be recognized. It is good to have compassion, but it is also totally understandable to be angry.

    That said, I completely agree about many activist spaces being trauma-inaccessible and unforgiving places.

    1. Sam Hope Post author

      No argument here – and it’s true that the oppressor often has the privilege to be “polite and civil” whilst twisting their knife, and then when the oppressed person shows anger they’re censured. I see this a lot with anti-trans feminists with their insidious and very provocative behaviour.

  3. David Knowles

    I ran into this recently. I challenged someone on the appropriateness of publicly shaming someone else. A more effective and gracious solution would have been to go to the offender and simply chat through the grievance.

    Nowadays temperance and general self control are seen as weakness instead of quiet strength.

    Those who guard their mouths and their tongues keep themselves from calamity. And
    Whoever wants to foster love covers over an offense, but whoever repeats the matter separates close friends.


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