This comic explains tone policing and why you shouldn’t do it

Originally published at:


Well-freakin’-done. Beautiful.


It makes sense that it’s about the tone of the conversation and not about the tone of skin as I initially thought. Very well made, the TLDR could be the classic “Don’t be a dick” but this is quite an informative guide on how to achieve that goal.


Speaking as someone who goes through spells of activism… no.

“No”, not in the sense that the comic is bad or wrong, on the contrary. I’ve been subjected to tone policing more often than I can count, and it’s frustrating as hell when it’s blatantly an attempt to derail the conversation.


I’ve also said the exact same things a few times to my fellow activists. Because what the comic neglects to mention is that it’s also absolutely right to moderate your tone when you want to convince someone.

It is insanely hard to win the support of someone who is alienated by your behaviour. It’s super easy to win the support of someone who thinks you’re just like them, with one difference, and that difference is what gets you treated much more badly than they are.

Self-policing of tone, please, let’s have more of that!


Uhh … no. The problem is, that no matter how calm I am when talking about some of the issues facing trans people, I get told I’m too emotional and need to calm down. Even if I’m a completely calm, unemotional robot, this happens. This issue was even covered in the comic. When the emotions … the anger, fear, frustration … are a CENTRAL part of the issue, then those emotions need to be expressed and acknowledged as valid. An issue also addressed in the comic. I think maybe you need to reed it again.


This conflates two things; whether people have a right to be as angry or extreme as they feel they ought to be about an issue and whether that’s the most effective way to get what they want. We see this all the time in politics; we are often disappointed in candidates and elected politicians because they often don’t seem to be enthusiastic about the issues that we are, but that’s often because in order to get things done, compromises have to be made. Saying that people don’t have a right to be as angry or extreme as they want to be is wrong; saying that if they want to get somebody elected who can actually do something about their problem that they might want to think about how they look from the outside isn’t wrong at all.


Then when that person runs for office, people say they’re using alarmist rhetoric when they’re simply stating uncomfortable truths, and then they get told to calm down, stop being emotional, listen to reason, etc.


I suspect that some of the objections to “tone” and to “emotionality” (what percentage of those objections it might be, I do not know) could actually be responses to the type of underlying toxic speech patterns that were identified by the scholar and author Suzette Haden Elgin (may she rest in peace), in her work developing her Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense system.

These patterns are something that everyone who is a native speaker of English knows, but many/most people aren’t able to identify/express what they are or why they are harmful. I think it could be the source of some of the confusion around the topic of tone policing.

I believe it’s really important to know the difference, whether you are on the side of wanting to be heard, or needing to listen. I will try to provide a link to her work later—have to run off to work now. I have linked to her work several times in the past on this forum.

Edit to add:
This thread is closed early, but I want to edit and leave links here in case anyone comes along and reads it later.

What I was trying to say is that, in English, certain patterns of speech and tone themselves serve as an attack, regardless of the actual words being said. Or put another way, one may recognize certain speech patterns or tones as being attacking, even when one wholeheartedly agrees with the words/ideas being said, and may legitimately object to the tone of the speech itself.

It is a part of what Suzette Haden Elgin explained in her various books on The Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense. e.g.:

The Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense

Here’s a partial look at that^ on Google Books

Success With the Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense (has scenarios geared toward workplace situations)


I’ve also seen the unfortunate flip side of this.

People who think that their own sense of self righteousness allows them to be an asshole to people who disagree with them (Or often, do not agree with them in the correct way), and that anyone pointing this out is therefore “tone policing” and wrong.


Laughing at your own wounds is very different from laughing at other peoples’ wounds. I think watching your own tone is very different from watching everybody else’s.


Every argument made applies just as easily to the incoherent raging of a Trump supporter.


The difficulty is that the people who are really good at the angry shouting and emotionalism are the white privileged people. Look at Republican and alt-right rhetoric. Astronauts and submariners are trained to neutralise emotions and function in a low key environment because anything else would be dangerous.
I’m very much in favour of self-policing but what is the proper response to a load of people waving placards and shouting about abortion being murder (to take one example)? Escalation?


I agree that this comic is helpful in pointing out some of the tone policing patterns, and how insidious they can be, which is definitely important, and starts the conversation. It raises the question, though of the line between abusive and emotionally invested, which is the much more difficult one to tackle. The examples in the comic are crystal clear, but I’d find it much more helpful to see a discussion of: “These examples are legitimate conversation moderation versus these that are tone policing, and here are the factors that make up them different.”

An important aspect that is mentioned, though not explored, is whether one party or the other is the more vulnerable, which always ends up fraught (even if to a reasonable person it should be clear, a-la black lives matter vs. blue lives matter). The comic seems to suggest (or at least leaves the point ambiguous) that tone policing is something that privileged people do to marginalized people because the tone policing words come more naturally to privileged people. This may be true to an extent, but it seems more critical to understand that both parties do and say the same kinds of things at different times, it just isn’t tone policing until and unless the tone-policer has the power of privilege behind them. Failing to explore and define this more sticky aspect of tone policing leaves the door open a bit for privileged people claiming that they are being silenced by the (what they perceive to be, or are at least feigning to believe) all powerful political correctness conspiracy (not that they need the door to be left open…).


I’ve run into this a bunch as well from some activists. One, a former friend, acted in a way that I can only describe as being more considerate of the feelings of someone, somewhere, somewhen that might hear the term that I had just unknowingly used and take offense than she was of the feelings of the person in front of her.

(The term in question, in the context of a fantasy RPG, was “hermaphrodite”, which was explained to me, at length and in a very nasty “you’re a bad person and you should feel bad” tone, as being a slur to the intersex community, which was something I had not previously known. I have since adjusted my behavior in the light of this new information, but the method of its delivery still makes me… irked from time to time in recollection)

Beyond that representative example and the small subset of circumstances it represents, though, I completely agree that tone policing is a major method used to keep marginalized people quiet–because they won’t say things in the right way to the people that are otherwise indifferent and are looking to keep their indifference.


She was playing my PCness is bigger than your PCness.


Summing up: “We talk. you listen.”

If I were running some sort of a Breitbart or 8chan false flag operation designed to reinforce stereotypes of feminism, it would look a lot like this comic.


Yep. And, on top of that, part of the reason she’s a former friend is that she kept going more and more extreme, and was one of those people who actually legitimately fulfilled the stereotype of “liberals looking for things to be offended by”. I actually got an IM from her earlier this summer, after not hearing from her for over a year, saying why she was so offended by my RPG campaign; despite me giving content warnings and trigger warnings and actively saying "If there is a problem with the story, tell me", it was still apparently my fault that she was uncomfortable with the themes of the urban fantasy horror RPG that I was running.

But this is tangential, and she is not representative of the majority of activists, nor should she be treated as such. For most activists, they are looking for redress, not vengeance.


That’s the staus quo, men know best about talking and women should listen to them.

Any suggestion that this could change is taken as a demand to reverse the roles.


But doesn’t the tone of someone’s voice give you an insight into how much something they’re saying matters to them?

Listen to any of the great speeches in history or the best orators and storytellers.

Without someone having a tone to what they were saying to me, I would have less of an idea of how I perceive that person if the conversation was just bland.

John Majors speeches were like watching paint dry and just turned you off to anything he was saying.

If I say something for example that is really important, say to do with a safety aspect with regards work and get ignored, the tone changes I become far sterner and rightly so.

If you feel impassioned about something important you should show it, I may not think you’re serious and not pay attention otherwise.

If in a store with a problem with an item I’d purchased that was faulty I would expect the sales assistant to have the serious tone of his or her voice if they were really chipper and just said “Oh dear another one” laughingly, I would think that they are being rude and not taking the problem seriously.

So the tone of a persons voice helps me to understand them and aren’t we just talking about another form of PCness?


“Our emotions our valid.”

Yours, on the other hand, which contradict mine, are not.

And while I agree that one should be able to express some anger or other emotions when debating a topic, too much is counter productive. We have all seen videos of people flipping out over one thing or another. Their cause may be 100% valid and important, but it is now completely forgotten and the person instead becomes a point of ridicule.