The tone argument argument: A straw man in motion


Categories: Personal Politics

Someone linked me to a discussion of the tone argument. Here’s the key point:

But a person who uses the tone argument does the opposite: he refuses to face up to the wrong he has done or do anything about it, much less apologize. Instead he turns it on you, making it not about what you said but how you said it.

This is a wonderful piece of writing, but it stays focused on a specific case – the case where the person arguing that you should say things more nicely is the one you’re saying them to, rather than some random bystander or participant in a discussion.

The thing is, the tone argument isn’t a logical fallacy, because it’s not a logical argument at all. No one is saying “you are strident, therefore wrong”. They are saying “you are hostile, therefore I am not interested in listening.” That’s not a fallacy at all, because it’s not a claim about the truth or falsehood of positions.

And the fact is, whether or not people say it, it’s usually true; people will generally massively underrate the importance of things that are said by people who are obviously highly emotional, and tend to give much more weight to things stated calmly and politely.

The question, as always, is this: Do you want to persuade people or do you want to express your feelings? Because if you want to persuade people, you need to learn to do it calmly and politely. And if you want to express your feelings, you need to be able to accept that other people will express theirs too.

Me? I say play to win. The goal should be to make people understand, and that means writing and speaking calmly. Polite persuasive writing works. Angry writing only sounds persuasive to the people who already agree.

Comments [archived]

From: Monika Wahi
Date: 2012-04-14 11:23:12 -0500

Hi there,

I guess you are right as usual. However, persevering on the role of “tone” misses the more important subtext of the article.

Everyone wants to control their tone if they want to persuade. Your point about calm and polite winning credibility is apt. However, think about what has to happen to you before you cannot control your tone (e.g., in a professional atmosphere). It has to be pretty egregious. Once a guy at work belittled a coworker in front of me until she cried. I certainly lost control of my tone there!

And that’s the point. They belittle you until you cry, then they accuse you for being emotional. They pay you pennies on the dollar for the same work, then they call you emotional if you demand respect. It works for sexism, too.

The subtext of the take-home message from the article is don’t be too quick to dismiss the emotional because of their “tone”. Don’t say, “I’m not listening to what you say (or reading what you write), fact or opinion, because I don’t like your tone!” Listen, and evaluate for content, not tone. We need to unbalance the calm = credible equation.

Love Monika

From: seebs
Date: 2012-04-17 00:56:09 -0500

I certainly agree with a lot of that. And sometimes you don’t get to choose your tone, or you just haven’t got the effort to give to put into it.

Thing is… It’s totally true that, in general, you should not dismiss things because of tone. But it’s also totally true that people do anyway.

In short, as a moral argument, the article’s got a good point. As a pragmatic argument, it doesn’t, and it loses further by framing it entirely in terms of the presupposition that it is always and exclusively the aggressors themselves who are pointing to tone as a thing that influences their views. The article absolutely rejects the concept that anyone who has not wronged you could ever suggest that you might be more effective in persuading people if you used a different tone.

I usually point out the importance of tone when I do agree with someone and I want them to be heard. I don’t make it as an argument in terms of justice or fairness, but pragmatics.

From: Glossolalia Black
Date: 2013-08-17 08:29:11 -0500

When you’re telling someone how much they suck because they’re a racist, sexist, or homophobic dickweed, it isn’t about convincing them anymore. My “stringency” is, as far as I’m concerned, not based on changing your mind, but cleaning your stupid clock. At that point, I’m done arguing, and am, instead, dispensing justice.

And just like the concept of free speech doesn’t save people from the consequences of their actions, being a racist/sexist/homophobe invoking “tone” won’t save me from eviscerating it to the best of my ability.

If only those black people were polite, maybe we would have thought twice about all that slavery! Yeah, nuh uh.

You say, Seebs, “I usually point out the importance of tone when I do agree with someone and I want them to be heard. I don’t make it as an argument in terms of justice or fairness, but pragmatics.” That’s awful sweet, but when someone’s mad at someone else for something REAL, it ain’t about wanting to be really heard, it’s about YOU CAN’T IGNORE THE CONSEQUENCES OF BEING A DICK.

At that point, I don’t give a shit about my tone, or the guy in the corner saying, “Gee, GB, if only you’d be nicer, maybe he could be convinced that gays, or blacks, or women, are real, breathing people.” Yeah, screw ‘tone’.

No interest in debate here, either. You have your opinion, I have mine. Much love to ya.

From: Predrag Stojadinovic
Date: 2013-12-13 09:54:36 -0600

The tone argument, when not used as “you are strident, therefore wrong”, is a type of a Red herring and thus is a logical fallacy.