Culture: Tone Policing

I am an unrepentant tone cop.

Let’s start from the beginning. If you’ve not been paying attention, a lot of people nowadays are obsessed about tone policing. In essence, it means “I am going to disregard your remarks until you phrase them in the manner of which I approve.”

Like most cultural shifts, it has its roots in a response to real problems. For pretty much all of human history, the powerful have suppressed the complaints of the powerless by imposing arbitrary requirements before their protests will be heard. You can see a hilarious example of tone policing in the Monty Python movie The Life of Brian, where in order to say “Romans go home!”, Brian has to go through a terrifying lesson in the proper use of Latin.

Tone policing done right. Err, wrongly. Very wrongly.

Although the clip is funny, the underlying point is not: requiring people to adopt the language and culture of the powerful before their complaints can be heard is a deeply immoral act. In this context, tone policing is bad for society and should be called out.

But that tends to not be how “tone policing” is used nowadays, and is why I’m an unrepentant tone cop.

Let’s start by taking it to an extreme: a rioter who is “communicating” the injustices heaped upon him by looting a convenience store is not to be tolerated. Before you can claim protection from being tone policed, you at the very least need to clearly be acting in good faith. The rioter is not acting in good faith, so we need not even give the rioter credit for the attempt at “communication”. But at the same time, the angry protester waving a sign and screaming loudly and making a public spectacle is operating in good faith, and we ought extend every reasonable attempt at bridging the communication gap.

So far I don’t think this is at all controversial. The hidden bomb in that paragraph, though, is “clearly acting in good faith”. Good faith is deeply contextual. Again painting in extremes: handcuffs and dominance displays in the bedroom between two consenting adults are quite a bit different from the same done on the street between constable and rioter.

Good faith is context-dependent. And that, in a phrase, is why I’m an unrepentant tone cop.

In truly public fora, like parks or public squares, good faith has its most expansive context. The powerful have a special obligation in those fora to bend over backwards to attempt to bridge the communication gap with the underprivileged. The less public the fora, though, the smaller the obligation. In truly private fora, like my apartment, I’m under no obligation to bridge any gap in culture or communication: if you’re behaving badly, as defined by the context I have chosen for my home, I’ll throw you out.

Nice and simple, right?

Still not controversial, I know.

Where this goes off the rails is in limited public fora. Consider for instance if the College Republicans were to invite Ben Shapiro to deliver a public address. Should protesters be allowed to drown out Shapiro’s words by, say, showing up with megaphones and air sirens and vuvuzelas? The forum is limited, in that it can only be used by one group of people for their desired purpose: who gets to use it, and why?

You may find this hard to believe, but I don’t know the answer. It’s an excellent question. The protesters unquestionably have the right to protest: but if Shapiro has the right to speak in a public forum, and the College Republicans have the right to hear their chosen speaker (this is actually a First Amendment right affirmed by the Supreme Court: the right to speak freely is meaningless without the right of a willing audience to hear a speaker), whose right should prevail?

It becomes much easier if, instead of vuvuzelas and chants of “hey, hey, ho, ho, Ben Shapiro’s got to go,” the protesters were to nondisruptively protest: presto, the forum is no longer limited. Everyone can use it to their purposes without precluding others’ use of it.

Ah, but the moment you say that, out come the accusations of tone policing. You’re quite literally telling an aggrieved group of people that their protest is unwelcome and will not be heard because they’re doing it wrong.

And, you know, they’re right. That’s exactly what’s happening. And there’s a powerful argument in favor of it happening: namely, that it maximizes the rights of all people. In our example of Brian being educated at the edge of a gladius[1] in proper declensions, the legionnaire is not concerned about maximizing rights of everyone: he’s concerned with maintaining the power of Roman culture. It is distinctly qualitatively different from disallowing the disruption of a public speech.

Too often I see tone policing used as a weapon to try to prevent this kind of rights-maximization from happening. It’s instead used to claw for power in a zero-sum game. To scream that your right to free speech necessitates denying Shapiro and the College Republicans their right to free speech, to claim that being forbidden from denying them their right to free speech is tone policing, is technically true… but that doesn’t mean the tone police are wrong.

And it gets even wilder when we move out of public fora into limited private fora. In Twitter threads, on web forums, in Facebook, in all of these places, it’s easy to find people who are acting improperly for the given social context and, when called on it, double down by claiming someone is tone-policing them. Trolls, malcontents, and ne’er-do-wells are genuinely damaging to the ability of the community in that corner of the net to conduct their community discussions (hence the “limited” in “limited private fora”: it only has a certain capacity for shenanigans). In limited private fora, there is no reason they ought be tolerated.

The net is not a giant public forum for free speech: it is in fact a collection of millions of private forums, each with its own social context and rules, and each with the right to show you to the door if you break the social compact.

My friend Yonatan Zunger is fond of saying that tolerance is not a moral concept so much as it is a peace treaty. I think he’s largely right. Uphold the peace treaty in a private fora and be welcome; break it and you’ll get shown the door by polite people wearing badges that read “Tone Police”.

And I’m completely okay with that.

[1] Latin for “sword”. Please, guv, don’t cut me!

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