Tag Archives: tone policing

Tone Policing and Justice

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.


Personal tectonic plates are moving

I learned a lot of things about myself this week. I notice that it takes me days to process emotions. I can’t respond fully in the moment. Tom suggests this is because I don’t let myself, and I don’t let myself because I don’t feel safe.

In the moment, control feels more important, a lot of the time. The priority is to stay calm, reasonable and not expressive so as not to cause anyone else trouble. I’ll need to get away by myself to howl, to rage, even to celebrate. It’s not a conscious choice, it’s what my body does.

I realise that this must make me weird to deal with. That I don’t manifest obvious emotional responses at the time, but may talk about them later could easily make me look like I’m faking. Immediacy is one of the things that makes emotions seem real to other people. But, with all due reference to the title of this blog post, what happens with me is like tectonic plate movement, and where and when the volcano or the earthquake happens doesn’t make a lot of sense unless you know about the plates.

Emotion is so easily used to invalidate people. Tone policing, ‘calm down dear’ responses, being told not to make a fuss… The person who expresses things emotionally can find that their emotions become the issue, not the thing that caused the emotions. Equally, my tendency to the delayed response and being able to talk about it calmly has led to suggestions that I’m an ice queen, that there is no genuine feeling going on and that I’m just trying to emotionally blackmail people.

The conclusion I’ve come to is that often there is no win with this kind of thing. If you’re dealing with someone who has no space for how you feel and finds it inconvenient, how you handle it won’t make any odds. Express, and you’re silly and over reacting. Don’t express, and you’re lying about how you feel. On the whole my conclusion is that I need to focus on better spaces and pay attention to when my body feels more able to be present to my emotional experiences.