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Tone argument

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Person A: [bigoted statement]
Person B: The fuck?
Person C: Now, now, let's have civility.

Dear C: You came in one statement too late.
—John Scalzi[1]

The tone argument is to dismiss an opponent's argument based on its presentation: typically perceived crassness, hysteria or anger. It is an ad hominem attack, used as a derailment, silencing tactic or by a concern troll.

The tone argument in practice is almost always dishonest. It is generally used by a tone troll against opponents lower on the privilege ladder, as a method of positioning oneself as a Very Serious Person.

As a debating technique, it can hypothetically be employed honestly (in response to emotional appeal) — the tone argument is not always incorrect, you catch more flies with honey than vinegar[2] — but it's not a very good argument because it falls to the style over substance fallacy. At best, it may be a way to point out rhetorical dishonesty in a formal debate, but at worst it is a way to erase experiences, emphasis, and other properties of a dialogue that were never actually up for debate.

You don't have to listen to someone and may find their tone offputting. Nobody wants an earful of an obnoxious person. However, this puts you in danger of being seriously incorrect about the world and inadvertently being more of an asshole than you intend to be.


[edit] Common forms of the tone argument

  • Dismissing or refusing to address an objective argument (e.g. statistical, scientific) for spurious reasons. The true objection is not to the tone.
  • A reverse tone troll can be used to compare you, the "good" objector, to strawman "bad" objectors. At least you're not like those uppity objectors.
  • A "call for civility". A useful honesty test of a call for civility is whether the person calling for "civility" in the current dispute has greater power on the relevant axes than the person they're calling "uncivil". In this context, calling for "civility" is a dominance move. Note that pretty much any objection is susceptible to being tagged "uncivil".
  • Appeal to Martin Luther King: in which an activist is criticized for their perceived failure to conform to the fictionalized perfection of some saintly nonviolent activist figure. Most commonly Martin Luther King Jr, but occasionally also Mahatma Gandhi or Cesar Chavez. And never mind that Dr King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail[wp]" was fundamentally a response to white tone trolls and concern trolls:[3]
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season."
  • "Shrill" or "militant": objecting sufficiently loudly that anyone actually notices, no matter the actual tone or style of the objection.
  • Objection to a particular word in the argument to dismiss the argument and speaker henceforth.
  • Objection to, or dismissal of, grammar or dialect as response to a substantive point.

When people finally tell the tone troll to go away, it may accuse them of "kafkatrapping", a term coined by Eric S. Raymond,[4] which means being so mean as not to bother explaining to an idiot why they're an idiot in simple enough terms for the idiot to want to understand.

[edit] How to discuss tone

Sea lions seek out polite discussions all the time.

The phrase "tone trolling" itself can be used to excuse verbally abusing one's opponents, so be careful who you accuse of doing it. Two common responses when it's deployed on you:

  1. First, make sure that you are participating in an actual rhetorical debate that both you and your opponent have consented to. Then, make sure that you either have your arguments together or the opponent is not debating in good faith. Bonus points for both, since it can backfire if your own allies contradict you.
  2. Light the flamethrowers and swear like an entire truck stop with a gas pump on fire.

The first of these is probably more productive.

If you tread on someone's toes and they tell you to get off, then get off their toes. Don't tell them to "ask nicely".

Make sure you don't bring tone into any ongoing argument. It may be OK to discuss it as an aside.

[edit] See also

[edit] External links

  • Tone argument (Geek Feminism wiki) — includes many, many examples of the argument's use on women

[edit] Footnotes

  1. https://twitter.com/scalzi/status/502085062540939264
  2. Although apple cider vinegar is pretty good for catching fruit flies. Comparative tests with honey are just waiting for a science fair project.
  3. http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html
  4. http://esr.ibiblio.org/?p=2122
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