The tone argument is a really common thing discussed in Internet social justice. For those who don’t know what “the tone argument” is, this is a fairly typical definition:
The tone argument is where you object to someone else’s argument based on its tone: it is too angry, too hateful, not calm enough, not nice enough, etc. It is a logical fallacy because none of those things has anything to do with whether the truth was spoken. It is used to derail and silence.
Here’s the thing: I agree with the mainstream social-justice position on the tone argument, as far as it goes. You should try to listen to the logic of people’s position, regardless of what tone they say it in. It is deeply unpleasant to be called a racist, misogynistic asshole! However, that doesn’t mean that they don’t have a point about you doing something racist or misogynistic. Also, if someone is being all “you’re a racist misogynistic asshole!” and you respond with “I have considered your points and you’re right. I’m sorry and I will not do it again. Thank you for educating me,” you look like a real class act.
However, that only covers half the etiquette problem here: the listeners. What about the speakers?
See, it’s the listener’s job to listen to the argument regardless of what form it’s presented in. And it’s the speaker’s job (remembering, always, that it is not a requirement to educate people and if you’re too angry or busy or tired to do it properly you don’t have to do it) to present it in a form that listeners will find convincing.
It is a rare person who responds well to being insulted and yelled at. Hell, I’ve been inculcated in social justice etiquette for years, I know how to take a callout, and I still feel my back arching and my teeth gritting when someone calls me an asshole. Even if they have a point, my first reaction is “fuck you and the horse you rode in on!” I can, often, take a deep breath and actually listen, but there are lots of times I just respond with a mental “fuck you,” even if the person might be right. There are lots of people who never get beyond the fuck-you stage. It’s hard enough to admit that you’re wrong (there are, in fact, scientific studies that prove this), there is no sense in making it even more difficult.
This is not about ‘civility.’ Fuck civility. I reserve the right to call Romney a femmephobic queerphobic doucheface as much as I like, because:
1) He’s not reading my blog.
Similarly, if I’m pretty sure my most airtight, logical, rationally presented argument will not change your mind, I’m going to call you an shit-for-brains asshat. At that point we’re not in a rational discussion and my goal is simply to illustrate for the peanut gallery that being an asshole who refuses to change their mind is unacceptable, as well as to show off my swearing repertoire. Civility is overrated.
It is not about civility. It is about effective argumentation. And effective argumentation is well-cited, logical, and clear– and very rarely involves calling the people you are trying to convince assholes.
It’s fairly common for social justice types to say, as a response to someone making the tone argument, “if you’re stepping on someone’s foot, you should stop stepping on their foot, not say ‘I’ll stop stepping on your foot if you ask nicely.'” This is true! However, that metaphor can also be reasonably extended:
1) If someone is stepping on your foot, and they don’t have a history of stepping on your foot and refusing to stop stepping on it, it is reasonable to respond with “hey, dude, get off my foot.” It is not reasonable to respond with “FUCK YOU YOU FUCKING ASSHOLE GET OFF MY FUCKING FOOT I BET YOUR MOTHER WAS A HAMSTER AND YOUR FATHER SMELT OF ELDERBERRIES.”
2) It is particularly not reasonable to respond with “FUCK YOU YOU FUCKING ASSHOLE,” as the people will probably have no idea that they are even stepping on your foot, and thus not know to stop stepping on it.
3) If someone is stepping on your foot and you say “FUCK YOU YOU FUCKING ASSHOLE GET OFF MY FUCKING FOOT I BET YOUR MOTHER WAS A HAMSTER AND YOUR FATHER SMELT OF ELDERBERRIES,” they are well within their rights to stop stepping on your foot and then say “hey, would you mind asking nicely next time?”