Person A: [bigoted statement]
Person B: The f#$%?
Person C: Now, now, let’s have civility.
Dear C: You came in one statement too late.~ John Scalzi 

I encountered the word TONE POLICING in my quest to find out why I got called out in a bridge building class by a group of activists when we touched on the subject of LGBTQIA+. In constructing my question, I made a comment about trying to understand people from that community. Also, apparently, it was thought I used a word considered derogatory – sympathy – instead of empathy. Well, the reaction to my comment and the supposed use of the word empathy took me by surprise. Eventually I had time to talk it over with one or two of them, but the impression of their reaction never quite left me. Here are some of my thoughts on what I am learning.

Parallel paradigms dot our world, each changing meaning with and reflecting the context in which they exist. These parallels are drawn to create narrow or more generalised ideological groupings of leftists, rightists and the inbetweeners. Cultural and religious bigotry for example holds an entirely different meaning depending on what part of the world you are from, or what time in history you are referring to. In another instance, an ideology seen as a tool for the emancipation of a people in a part of the world could be seen as a dearth of humanity that has allowed the subjugation of a people and perpetuate systemic injustice in another part of the world. It can be argued that, unfortunately, realities built from these differing paradigms inform prejudices and form the basis for most opinions, perspectives and dialogues when social relationships are cultivated in local and global communities. This explains why an issue seen as sacred to a people may be to others a matter of little or no consequence; and vice versa. The reactions from the latter can sometimes be seen as attitudes connoting some form of tone policing.

But then what actually constitutes Tone Policing? On what basis is it called thus? Is it based on the effects someone’s remarks/attitudes/response has on a particular individual or the intents of the individual being called out? So how do you measure or decide what set of remarks, attitudes, reaction, etc gets termed tone policing? Is its interpretation based on or influenced by personal values, personal space, or personal attitudes of both or either parties…Or do we need to find another word to separate calling people out based on the effect of their remarks/attitudes on a person or group as opposed to their intent? Is it a zero sum issue, or it’s about accommodation and relationship?

According to,

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 (esp. concern trolls) in order to derail or silence opponents lower on the privilege ladder, as a method of positioning oneself as a Very Serious Person.

Yes, vulnerable groups are not just being discriminated against, but they are targeted deliberately. This gives me a lot of concern especially because I come from Africa. This is wrong. Some of these broader concepts of human rights is still seen as alien, especially given our culture and the seeming ‘lack of exposure’. However, especially (and specifically) within a community of practice such as ours (social justice and human rights), it would be a great strategy for vulnerable groups to be open and willing to calmly share (and peacefully debate if it warrants, because it will get to that at some point to make a difference) their views where they see an opportunity. It is key for vulnerable groups to learn to identify potential champions or listening ears. Especially for queer groups, irrespective of how you see it, the reality is some of the concepts are still alien to some people and it is difficult to understand. My point is if it becomes difficult to talk about the issues with members of vulnerable groups, there is more room for assumptions to be made, and less chance to discredit baseless beliefs fuelling discrimination. The parallels are further entrenched and bridge building more difficult.