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Sunday, 12 February 2017

Tone Policing

It seems, to me, the fashion to consider what the election of Donald Trump means. One aspect of this fashion is wondering how on earth Trump came to be elected in the first place and what these mechanisms mean going forwards. Well, the truth is that we should exercise a lot of caution in this regard because Trump shouldn't have won the recent US elections. I don't mean this in the sense that we shouldn't have voted for National in 2014. What I mean to say is that if the US operated in a well designed system, the election campaigning would've happened across the country and there would be no demographic clustering that worked out well for Trump and poorly for Clinton. And then there was Comey. Naturally, given that the features are unlikely to change any time soon, Clinton supporters in particular have been wondering about what they will do next time around.

I think the above context should draw our attention to one quite important, but also unfairly controversial, idea: tone policing. Now, sure, tone policing most accurately describes attempts to side-track conversations into discussions about tone rather than substance or even some sort of, I suppose, ad hominem attack. This is why you'll hear people talking about tone policing as being obsessed with shrill women. But tone policing is actually getting to something broader than this and it needs to separated out from online "discussions" of feminism and put in its own light. We need to recognise that while the tone police, those we think of when we hear the term, are problematic, what they're saying isn't bollocks. And it is trivial to see how this is the case. Here's a hypothetical example:
  • "Feminism is completely stupid: a bankrupt ideology committed to the principle of female dominion over men."
  • "OMG, what did I just read... soo wrong... it's like, I don't even.Google feminism dipshit."
  • "Wow, do you seriously think that talking to him like that is going to convince him that you're right?"
I think this is a believable example and, to be honest, I should probably try and find a real one but it's late and I just want to get this topic off my chest. But before I do that we need to slow things down to note three things about this example. One, the tone policer was not, in this case, the original speaker. Two, the original speaker is wrong (that really is a terrible conception of feminism, if a common one) and the "refuter" is right. Three, telling him to do a Google search is bad advice for three reasons. (I) Google's searches vary between users based on their usage: there is no naive Google search. (II) One is likely to find reference to conceptions of feminism that match the original speaker's views, if not outright endorsements. (III) People tend to ignore things that disagree with them and notice things that agree with them: self-directed research is not an answer. Is something like this the tone policer's point, though? No. The logic of tone policing is that how you choose to dress something up matters... there is significance to forms and modes as well as substance.

Whether or not you agree with the motives underlying tone policing I think it is both a mistake and a common occurrence to allow the critique of the usage to colour the substance of the idea. That is, tone policing is generally very ironic in usage... there is some way of encoding the message "be careful how you say what you mean because it affects the reception" that is better. In fact, betterness is what tone policing really boils down to in plain language terms: there is a better way of saying that (whatever that is). I think this idea that different expressions of the same meaning are unequal is very obvious, but maybe it isn't.

Notice that word "encoding" above, why did I use that particular word? Very simply, because that's the word that was used when we did the Communications Process Model in (I believe) Business 102. I'm not sure how much attention relevant academics give this model but it must be said that it lines up with what I know about the world so I believe in it. I also believe in examples. Take the expression "I'm pissed", what have I just told you? Am I horrendously drunk or enormously angry? Did you even think that there was ambiguity in that expression? In NZ, we use "pissed off" when we're angry because being "pissed" means being drunk. This is not necessarily true everywhere else. The abstract point of this example is that different socio-cultural contexts will lead to different interpretations of the same message. I think this is part one of why tone-policing's logic is correct.

If I look at tone policing through the consumer process model because my "indoctrination" into the buzzword life has been very successful, my faith in the notion that consumers, that is people, only "perceive" a subset of the stimuli they're exposed to is due only to higher level indoctrination. Basically, perception consists of several parts which I don't recall right now and am too tired to look up... the upshot is that you only perceive what you're made aware of. Have you ever been out shopping and realised that you've been zoning out the music? That's your not being aware of stimuli... more to the point, your constructing barriers to avoid letting stimuli in. This is also why you'll notice that many ads are louder than surrounding programming or start off in weird ways: marketers use numerous techniques to get noticed. Sometimes they go too far and people don't get the message... maybe you try to sell something with sex but your viewer only remembers the pretty face and has no idea what product was being sold, something like that. In the context of tone policing what this means is that you do have to be more than background to get heard, but what makes you stand out may be what gets the attention: not your message.

I think the third major reason to respect the logic of tone policing is that we're people and we make judgements. For instance, some people wonder if you're disadvantaged in a court-room if you are unable to appear in a suit or if pupils will pick up on socio-economic cues in mufti and bully each other. These judgements don't, of course, appear out of thin air: they're products of most of the things we've been exposed to. Which is why your grandmother might be shocked if you swear in your song but literally no-one else even notices (the above paragraph) and also why your grandmother might think less of you for doing so. But we're not really profiling here... we notice some behaviour that a person has, "know" a meaning for that behaviour and infer the meaning applies to the person. Thus, if you say annoying things you become annoying and if you say unreasonable things.. you become unreasonable.

The last reason why I think tone policing's logic is true is simply about the sort of barriers that people construct... ask yourself, what does offending or enraging someone actually accomplish? Well, they're likely to think less rationally and entrench their positions... this is not so good if you're trying to convince them but it is likely to make them look unreasonable.. which may convince some third party of whatever your point of view is. On the other hand, the above discussion suggests that we may be viewed  as dickheads or bullies, which makes us unreasonable instead, i.e. the bad guys. When we factor in all the reasons why argument tends not to convince people, it becomes all the more critical to realise just how damaging further barriers could be to mutual understanding. Is mutual understanding not our goal? It bloody well better be...

The case made here doesn't seek to defend tone policing per se, but it does seek to suggest that its logic matters. I also think that the substance of a message is important, and the idea of tone policing is really about realising that we can maximise the worth of our messages by paying attention to our tone. Perhaps even more important is actually going out and talking to people: no matter how slick your style or strong your substance, if they don't hear you, they're not going to listen.

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