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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]
I have three things I'd like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don't give a shit. What's worse is that you're more upset with the fact that I said shit than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.
—Tony Campolo[2]

The tone argument (also tone policing) is a logical fallacy that occurs when an argument is dismissed or accepted on its presentation: typically perceived crassness, hysteria or anger. Tone arguments are generally used by tone trolls (especially concern trolls) as a method of positioning oneself as a Very Serious Person.

The fallacy relies on style over substance. It is an ad hominem attack, and thus an informal fallacy.


P1: X asserted Y is true with bad tone.
P2: Something asserted with bad tone may as well be false.
C: Y may as well be false.

A variant is, rather than criticising some irrelevant aspect of your opposer's style of argument, you instead praise them for their politeness or nice penmanship, for their good command of the English language so different from those nasty rappers with all their swearing, etc. In either case you have effectively deflected attention from subject to style and enhanced your own status as an arbiter of taste and value.


  • 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". Note that pretty much any objection is susceptible to being tagged "uncivil".
  • "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.

Appeal to MLK[edit]

The "appeal to MLK" occurs when an activist is criticized for (supposedly) failing to act entirely in accordance with the fictionalized saintliness of some activist. Most common is Martin Luther King, Jr., but occasionally Mahatma Gandhi or Cesar Chavez are pulled in. This example particularly fails in that Dr King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail"Wikipedia was fundamentally a response to tone policers:[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."

Appeals to MLK are also a form of the argument from authority.


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 he defines as them using the refusal to recognize they're racist, sexist or what have you as evidence they're racist, sexist, etc. Others find it to be 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. Raymond explains "kafkatrapping tends to work best on weak and emotionally vulnerable personalities", which may clarify why he's so worried about it.

That being said, please don't take somebody's denial of racism/sexism/whatever as evidence of them being racist/sexist/whatever. Such circular argumentation only hurts your case, and, in all probability, will only make the person you're talking to more, not less, willing to engage in racist/sexist/whatever behavior, because it invites the logic that "if I'm racist/sexist/whatever by definition, I might as well actually be racist/sexist/whatever".


Aside from the obvious exceptions (e.g. threats of death or violence), 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[note 1] — 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 simply awarding victory to whoever is affected the least by what is being discussed.

You don't have to listen to someone and may find their tone offputting. Nobody wants an earful of an obnoxious person. In fact, most people simply do not tolerate obnoxious arguments — and will tend to think of any argument they disagree with as obnoxious — no matter how correct they are, which is why politicians go out of their way to avoid this effect. However, while being unhappy with someone's style may be valid, ignoring the content puts you in danger of being seriously incorrect about the world.

There's a difference between criticising someone's tone from a position of power or privilege (e.g. a white person complaining about a black person) and from a position of vulnerability (a black person complaining about a white's tone). Those in power typically have less skin in the game: impolite language will at worst result in mildly hurt feelings. But for those at the bottom, unpleasant tone can produce a culture of oppression and violence: the difference between women joking about raping men and men joking about raping women. That being said, treating people as part of their racial/gender group, rather than as autonomous individuals, could arguably be described as dehumanising. In the previous example it should be noted that, due to the frequency of prison rape — already not taken as seriously as non-prison rape — many men have had these painful personal experiences. Suggesting that it is more acceptable for a member of one group to perform an action than another from another group is somewhat disturbing under this context.

Abuse of the term[edit]

Sea lions seek out polite discussions all the time.

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".

The phrase "tone trolling" itself can be (and has been[5]) 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.

The first of these is probably more productive.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. Although apple cider vinegar is pretty good for catching fruit flies. Comparative tests with honey are just waiting for a science fair project. It also depends on what sort of fly; generally speaking manure or rotten and decaying flesh will attract a greater number of flies than honey, which is why using ridiculous platitudes should be avoided as they're almost always useless.