I’ve been seeing an awful lot of tone policing on my dash lately. It seems a lot of people don’t really understand why someone would respond aggressively or angrily, or otherwise emotionally, to having something really fucked up/hurtful/oppressive said to them. Or, they think it’s counterproductive to respond in that way.
First off, the reason that people may respond in a “harsh” manner to oppression: Living in a world that reminds you daily of your lesser worth as a human being can make a person very tired and emotional. When someone says something oppressive — that can be a racist slur, an ableist stereotype, a misogynist dismissal, an invalidation of identity/experiences, being asked invasive and entitled questions, and so on – it feels like being slapped in the face, to the person on the receiving end. The automatic response is emotion and pain. It’s quite exhausting and difficult to restrain the resulting anger. And, frankly, it’s cruel and ridiculous to expect a person to be calm and polite in response to an act of oppression. Marginalized people often do not have the luxury of emotionally distancing themselves from discussions on their rights and experiences.
Second, tone policing is the ultimate derailing tactic. When you tone police, you automatically shift the focus of the conversation away from what you or someone else did that was wrong, and onto the other person and their reaction. Tone policing is a way of not taking responsibility for fucking up, and it dismisses the other person’s position by framing it as being emotional and therefore irrational. The conflation of emotionality with irrationality is often used to silence women and people who are read as women, when they are trying to speak about anything at all. It’s also used against all marginalized people when they attempt to speak about their very personal experiences with oppression. But being emotional does not make one’s points any less valid. It’s also important to note that, by tone policing, you not only refuse to examine your own oppressive behavior, but you also can blame that on the other person, because they were not “nice enough” to be listened to or taken seriously.
Third, the implications: Tone policing assumes that the oppressive act is not an act of aggression, when it very much is. The person who was oppressed by the action, suddenly is no longer a victim, but is “victimizing” the other person by calling them out. Now, I’m not saying it’s okay to be abusive, or oppressive in response to a person who fucks up. But anger is valid. Anger is valid, anger is important, anger brings social change, anger makes people listen, anger is threatening, and anger is passion. Anger is NOT counterproductive; being “nice” is counterproductive. Nobody was ever given rights by politely asking for them. Politeness is nothing but a set of behavioral expectations that is enforced upon marginalized people.
If you see someone who is angry and upset about something that was said or done to them, don’t tell them they should be nicer. Instead: Recognize their emotions as valid. Recognize that their emotional state is an indication that something extremely harmful was done to them, whether it was by you, or someone else. Work to understand why the action was oppressive. Take all that energy that you’re wasting being so concerned with how people are responding to their own oppression, and channel it into fighting oppression.