Tone policing

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Tone policing (also tone trolling, tone argument, and tone fallacy) is an ad hominem (personal attack) and anti-debate tactic based on criticizing a person for expressing emotion. Tone policing detracts from the truth or falsity of a statement by attacking the tone in which it was presented rather than the message itself.[1]

The notion of tone policing became widespread in U.S. social activist circles by the mid-2010s. It was widely disseminated in a 2015 comic issued by the Everyday Feminism website. Many activists[who?] argued that tone policing was regularly employed against feminist and anti-racism advocates, criticizing the way that they presented their arguments rather than engaging with the arguments themselves.

Tone policing has been described by one writer as "when someone (usually a privileged person) in a conversation or situation about oppression shifts the focus of the conversation from the oppression being discussed to the way it is being discussed. Tone policing prioritizes the comfort of the privileged person in the situation over the oppression of the disadvantaged person."[2]


Tone policing is often aimed at women and may derive from the stereotype that women are more emotional than men and particularly the angry black woman stereotype. In Bailey Poland's book Harassment, Abuse, and Violence Online, she addresses that tone policing is frequently aimed at women and attempts to derail or silence opponents who may be lower on the "privilege ladder". She identifies tone policing as a form of cybersexism, as it enables men to dominate women in debates by acting as authorities on what approaches were acceptable. The men, by focusing on women's tone, made the outcome of the debate not based on the argument, but rather on the man's use of either "respectful" interaction or aggressive harassment.

Women in many conversations online are placed in a no-win situation in which their speech becomes grounds for disagreement and harassment regardless of topic or conversational strategies, and their points are ignored or discarded...While anyone can engage in tone policing, it is frequently aimed at women as a way to prevent a woman from making a point in the discussion.[3]

In Keith Bybee's How Civility Works, he notes that feminists, Black Lives Matter protesters, and anti-war protesters have been told to "calm down and try to be more polite". He argues that tone policing is a means to deflect attention from injustice and relocate the problem in the style of the complaint, rather than address the complaint itself.[4]


Critics have argued that tone policing is a flawed concept simply because it is autological, meaning that criticising of tone policing is itself a form of tone policing. As discussed by The Frisky's Rebecca Vipond Brink, "The problem with telling someone that you have a right to express yourself as angrily as you want to without them raising an objection is that you're also inherently telling them that they don't have a right to be angry about the way you're addressing them."[5]

Although maintaining that the idea of tone policing had validity, Shubhankar Chhokra argued that those raising objections to tone policing often made the error of not viewing "argumentation as the most effective means to resolution". He thought that many of those who made accusations of tone policing against others appeared to take the view that "discussion can be simply emotional or eschewed altogether for unilateral claims to the truth".[6]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "How tone policing legitimizes injustice (and private police)". The Johns Hopkins News-Letter.
  2. ^ Oluo, Ijeoma (January 2018). So you want to talk about race. Seal Press. pp. 205–206. ISBN 9781580058827.
  3. ^ Bailey Poland (2016) Haters: Harassment, Abuse, and Violence Online, p. 46. University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 9781612348728.
  4. ^ Keith Bybee (2016) How Civility Works, p. 30. Stanford University Press. ISBN 9781503601543.
  5. ^ Rebecca Vipond Brink (2014-09-07). "Calling Out Tone-Policing Has Become Tone-Policing". Archived from the original on 2016-11-19. Retrieved 2016-11-18.
  6. ^ Chhokra, Shubhankar (April 8, 2016). "The Myth of Tone Policing". The Harvard Crimson. Retrieved December 10, 2019.

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