Saturday, 13 February 2016

Tactics and Tactfulness: Some Thoughts about Tone Policing

     Okay, I take it back.

     A couple of years ago, I wrote in this post that the argument-from-anger fallacy doesn’t seem to be used outside of the capital punishment debate. Yesterday, however, it was used on me in a discussion about effective rhetorical technique.

     A friend of mine had been involved in a nasty online squabble, and we were talking about how it came to this. When I identified what I thought were some rhetorical missteps, the topic turned to “tone policing”. Tone policing, if you've not heard of it, is an argumentative tactic in which you object to the tone of your opponent and refuse to listen until she calms down or speaks more politely or otherwise complies with your standards of civility.
     Actually, I'm probably being generous with the word "argument"; it's really more of a bickering move. Bickering differs from argument in that the objective is essentially personal: bickering is about being the "winner", while proper argument is more generally concerned with establishing which proposition is more likely to be true. I suppose you could say that bickering is a specialized form of argument for resolving propositions about who's the better bickerer, which is about the only situation in which ad hominem is the whole point and thus not a fallacy.
      One of the things that makes tone-policing such an attractive ploy is that it seems to turn your opponent's own passion against them: if they feel strongly about a matter, you can impeach their credibility by claiming they're "emotional", while simultaneously scoring points portraying yourself as the more calmly rational one. And, it has the added benefit that few things are more infuriating than being told to calm down; not only do you get to disparage their objectivity on the offensive, but they will often lend support to your claim by reacting more angrily. So it can be an effective trap, especially against someone who is prone to anger in the first place

     Of course, I fancy myself a bit of a rhetorician, and so I tend to look down my nose at the techniques of bickering. Outside of that specialized arena, they're really bad habits, and even in that arena, a skilled rhetorician can easily counter them ("Why yes, I am passionate about this issue, as a matter of fact. Aren't you? Why not?"). And so I'll confess to having been just a wee bit hurt when, in identifying the tactical error that led to the harassment, it was suggested that I was engaging in tone policing and victim-blaming.
     And yet, I can see where the confusion arises, because my critique had been, in part, about how anger was the cause of the tactical error. As my friend put it, it's easy to step back and be rational when you have no skin in the game.
     Yes, it is. Conversely, though, it can be hard to stay rational when you do have skin in the game. And that's why tone policing is such an effective bickering technique. But it's also why it's so important, in rhetoric as in martial arts, to learn how to channel your anger effectively, not to be channeled by it.
     My friend seemed to think I was criticizing the angry escalation as unjustified, as if I was urging politeness and patience, and condemning too forceful a counterattack. To quote the analogy offered: "He had his foot on my neck, your honour, so I stabbed his leg."
     But that wasn't my criticism at all, because it''s not what my friend actually did. Stabbing the leg of the person standing on your neck is a perfectly valid move, and not an overreaction at all, but it takes a certain presence of mind to reach down to your belt, draw your knife, and strike effectively. No, what my friend did was essentially to scream with rage and flail around with much sound and fury but doing virtually no real damage, while leaving the foot firmly in place.

     Or not, actually, because the opponent had not actually succeeded in placing foot to neck, either. Yes, it might have been an infuriatingly offensive racist or sexist claim that, because it is widely accepted, does great harm and should not go unchallenged, but it was a straw on the back, not a boot on the neck. And while a ton of straws can immobilize you just as brutally as a well-placed boot, in the context of an online argument, they might as well be on someone else's back; your freedom of movement to respond however you like is not compromised at all.
     This is the other way in which bickering and disciplined rhetoric differ.  In bickering, the victor is usually the one who goes away smugly triumphant, while the loser is left angry and humiliated. If I fling an insult at you, and it makes you angry, that's actually a way of scoring points in bickering, and the angrier I make you, the more it's worth. And so in a bickering contest, an additional straw on the back can be a tremendously efficient attack, because it can draw on the weight of all the other straws already there to make you so much angrier.
     But in disciplined rhetoric, you're trying to present ideas that your audience (ideally including your opponent) will feel obliged to accept. This requires tact. It's not about being polite as such, but about deftly maneuvering the point of your argument past your opponent's defences so that it can strike the conscience effectively. And chief among the defences you want to get past is anger: you must avoid using arguments that directly draw the anger of your opponent (except perhaps as a feint).
     That sounds paradoxical, so think about it from the other side. When your opponent says something that makes you angry, think about why that is. Almost always, it's because something about it is wrong in some way. Perhaps it makes you angry because what he says is unfair, or untrue, or unsound. (If it makes you angry because it is true, then you should probably concede defeat, or at least retreat to reconsider your position.) And when your opponent says something unfair, untrue, or unsound, that is where to strike. And you strike not by emphasizing how angry it makes you (remember, nobody cares what you think), but by laying bare exactly how it is wrong, so that your audience and even your opponent are forced by their own faculties to reject it. Angrily, even.

     The point, then, is not that you shouldn't be angry in argument; on the contrary, anger is a vital part of the rhetorician's instincts and skills. Moreover, if it's not something that gets you angry on some level, it's not worth arguing about. Rather, the point is to learn to cultivate and refine your sense of anger, so that you may use it effectively. To the extent that rudeness offers an excuse not to listen, yes, tact is necessary, but do not mistake this for meek politeness; it is not about asking them nicely to agree with you because you said please, but about maneuvering past their defences with ruthless precision so that the full force of your logical argument will strike home.
     This is not tone policing. In fact, it's the key to defeat someone who attempts to tone-police you. Why does it make us angry when someone tells us to calm down and be polite? Because it's all kinds of hypocritical. Focus in on that hypocrisy, and bring it out for all to see just how ridiculous or infuriating or contemptible it really is. ("Really? You're so upset by my being upset that you can't listen to what I'm upset about?") By all means, let your anger show enough to give context and to make your argument relatable, but do not let your anger be the argument.
     When you do that, you're likely to fall into the trap of thinking greater anger makes for greater argument, but the very angriest people are often the most wrong.


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