Tone policing (also tone trolling, tone argument, and tone fallacy) is an ad hominem (personal attack) and antidebate 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.

Who experiences itEdit

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 womens' 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.[1]

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.[2] In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, 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."[3]


While tone policing may be an intentional tactic to derail a discussion or debate, other causes are possible. Bruce Byfield has written that steering observers away from the validity of an argument is only one of many possible motivations for raising concerns about tone during a heated debate.[4]


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."[5]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Bailey Poland (2016) Haters: Harassment, Abuse, and Violence Online, p. 46. University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 9781612348728.
  2. ^ Keith Bybee (2016) How Civility Works, p. 30. Stanford University Press. ISBN 9781503601543.
  3. ^ Chhokra, Shubhankar (2016-04-08). "The Myth of Tone Policing". The Harvard Crimson. Retrieved 2018-04-26.
  4. ^ Byfield, Bruce (2014-03-20). "Separating discussions of tone from tone arguments". Retrieved 2018-04-26.
  5. ^ Rebecca Vipond Brink (2014-09-07). "Calling Out Tone-Policing Has Become Tone-Policing". Retrieved 2016-11-18.

External linksEdit