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The Myth of Tone Policing

Taking “social justice warriors” and Trump supporters seriously—to an extent

Millennial Athwart

“Calm down so we can discuss this like adults.”

Today’s social activists are quick to call out the seductive, siren’s call appeal of this specious argument. Tone policing, they claim, unfairly discounts the substance of an argument because of its presentation and prioritizes civility over truth. In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King faults not just the Ku Klux Klan member, but the “white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than justice.”

Their underlying point is correct: One can simultaneously be angry and rational. The elusiveness of this point perhaps explains our inability to slow down the Trump machine. Since his arrival in the political arena, the conservative intelligentsia was quick to criticize not only him, but also the movement he stands for. They confused the anger of Trump supporters for irrationality, which only made them angrier.

As vapid as you might consider them, it’s hard to make a case that their decision to vote for Trump is unsystematic and not thoughtful. Trump has outlined a fairly clear, albeit generally unpalatable platform for his presidency—a wall across the border, a freeze on funding to Planned Parenthood, a ban on refugees—that is in line with the views of his voter base.

His supporters are putting justice—or at least their conception of it—over order. In their eyes, the RINOs who consider any support for Trump as indefensible ipso facto fall prey to the establishment’s guile of civility, baited by rhetoric that sounds polite or politically correct at the expense of a truth that may be hard to swallow.

It’s unfair to dismiss both the feminist, whose anger at the patriarchy is integral to her argument, and the Trumpist, whose fear of Muslim immigrants cannot be dismissed solely on face value.

But where the fight against tone policing gets it wrong is that it still does not view argumentation as the most effective means to resolution. The best case for condemning tone policing is that discussion can be both rational and emotional—that arguments should be considered on merits, not decorum. But the case that often gets made instead is that, in scenarios where injustice is great, discussion can be simply emotional or eschewed altogether for unilateral claims to the truth.

A seminal piece on tone policing circulated widely and often online—a comic by the blog Every Day Feminism—characterizes the tactic as an exercise of privilege, a plausibly justifiable assertion, but uses this claim to attack open dialogue as a methodological approach to truth-finding. “Some topics,” the comic claims, “don’t have two [or three, or four] equal sides, and some viewpoints don’t have to be met neutrally.” The graphic below this text depicts a woman asking to debate on transgender identities, to which another replies pithily, “Let’s not.”

It’s important to be critical of systematic approaches to problems. Yet one whose reliability has withstood the test of time is the application of the competition of ideas. If ideas can never be totally proven to be correct and thus should compete for popular appeal and the claim to truth, then we should have the maturity and foresight to recognize emotion as a tool that can sometimes aid, sometimes distract from, but never replace reason. That means resisting temptations to dismiss the credibility of a claim because of the person touting it. It means taking the concerns and arguments of the Trumpist and feminist with the same critical gravity.

But don’t for a second allow anyone to exploit these problems with tone policing to forego discussion altogether. Unfettered discussion will always be truth’s most rigorous trial, a scary reality for those after something less akin to truth and more to their interpretation of justice. Justice is always more important than order, but do not let the least orderly dictate the standards for justice.


Shubhankar Chhokra ’18, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Eliot House. His column appears on alternate Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @shubchhokra.

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