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 validity of a statement by attacking the tone in which it was presented rather than the message itself.
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 argued that tone policing was regularly employed against feminist and Black Lives Matter advocates, criticizing the way that they presented their arguments rather than engaging with the arguments themselves.
Writing for The Harvard Crimson in 2016, columnist Shubhankar Chhokra noted that the concept of tone policing received widespread online dissemination through a comic created by the website Everyday Feminism the previous year. He added that "social activists" active at the time were "quick" to highlight examples of tone policing.
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.
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. In his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail", Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. condemned this type of silencing, writing that he was "gravely disappointed" with the "white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than justice."
While ad hominem fallacies of relevance are often autologies, critics have argued that tone policing is a flawed concept simply because it is autological, meaning calling out tone policing is 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." This is however not correct, since pointing out that someone is tone policing is not addressing the tone in which they are doing so, but the fact that they are doing so; it doesn't matter whether or not someone is tone policing in an angry or neutral tone, it remains logically fallacious in any case.
Although maintaining that the idea of tone policing had validity, 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".
- Chhokra, Shubhankar (April 8, 2016). "The Myth of Tone Policing". The Harvard Crimson. Retrieved December 10, 2019.
- Bailey Poland (2016) Haters: Harassment, Abuse, and Violence Online, p. 46. University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 9781612348728.
- Keith Bybee (2016) How Civility Works, p. 30. Stanford University Press. ISBN 9781503601543.
- Chhokra, Shubhankar (2016-04-08). "The Myth of Tone Policing". The Harvard Crimson. Retrieved 2018-04-26.
- Rebecca Vipond Brink (2014-09-07). "Calling Out Tone-Policing Has Become Tone-Policing". Retrieved 2016-11-18.[dead link]
- Everyday Feminism Original Tone policing cartoon
- Jesse Benn The White Anti-Racism Tone Police: White Supremacy vs. White Privilege The Huffington Post 24 Jul 2015
- Amanda Marcotte Tone Policing Only Goes One Way Raw Story 22 May 2013