Tone policing is the unpleasant habit of making the way the message is delivered more important than the content. It tends to be undertaken by the person with the most privilege in a situation as a way to ignore, diminish, take down or silence someone who is distressed. It also tends to go with treating someone who is distressed as invalid – too emotional, unreasonable, childish, out of control – so as to feel like there’s no need to take them seriously.
If the hurt feelings of the person with power and privilege are the most important thing, then of course nothing is going to change. And yes, it can be really uncomfortable looking at the ways in which you benefit from a system that hurts other people. It can be disturbing and upsetting to be told you’re perpetrating harm when you thought you were ok. These are hard lessons to learn, and tone policing is not the answer, not in this context.
There are however, times for tone policing. We should be policing ourselves, especially in situations where we have power and advantage. Are we speaking kindly and respectfully? Are we talking over other people? Are we increasing the anger in a situation? Are we punching down? Are we shouting someone else down? If you’re the person with the emotional control in a situation, are you using the fact that it isn’t hurting you to run power over someone who is being hurt?
Consider policing the tone of people who share your privileges. Call them out – gently and politely – when you catch them putting their own hurt feelings ahead of the actual oppression of other people. Call out the people who use anger and aggression to dominate spaces. Call out the micro-aggressions and be prepared to explain – calmly – why this kind of thing isn’t ok.
One of the biggest indicators of who has power can be seen around who is allowed to be upset. People with power and privilege are allowed to be upset when children’s cartoons aren’t made for them. People without power and privilege are not allowed to be upset when people in their community are murdered. If we want justice, then this is an area of human interaction that really needs some work. It is complicated territory and tends not to bring out the best in people, but small acts around checking your own tone, policing the people closest to you if they mess up, and defending the right of people to be upset by actual oppression will add up.