Where Logic Meets Love

Allies, Education, and Tone Policing

Friday, July 26, 2013

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Allies, Education, and Tone Policing | Faith Permeating Life

As you may have noticed, a lot of my posts recently have centered around being an ally: how not to be an ally, how to navigate contradictory advice about being an ally, and how what I read every day affects my ability to be an ally. This is because I've been spending a lot of time reflecting on my own words and actions and becoming more aware of how my own privilege affects my daily life.

I've also been in a lot of conversations with other people who want to become better allies, which has given me the occasion to think about how I want to support other people who want to be allies, particularly men who genuinely want to better understand the experience of people who are not male in a patriarchal society. I've also spent a lot of time in the feminist blogosphere and noticed the ways space is made (or not) for these wannabe allies. What follows is primarily directed to other women who also write about male privilege and the experience of being a woman.

I have a lot of thoughts, but a good place to start is with this conversation I had on Twitter yesterday with Emily Maynard, Alyssa Bacon-Liu, and Danielle Vermeer. (I suggest taking time to read it.)

It began with Emily saying (in response, I believe, to a blog discussion about "modesty rules"):
I guess I'm noticing a difference between men who say, "whoa, I didn't know, can you explain more?" & those who are all "PROVE IT TO ME NOW"
This second group falls under the "When Is an Ally Not an Ally?" group I described a few weeks ago -- you can tell that they don't actually want to learn because no matter what evidence you provide to say that something is harmful, problematic, or offensive, they will try to invalidate it or derail the conversation.

The tricky thing is that what looks like the first group (people who genuinely want to learn and be better) can sometimes turn out to be the second group. Captain Awkward, the advice columnist, has run into several situations where someone writes in saying, "Can you help me better understand this about the women in my life?" and then proceeds to respond to every piece of advice with arguments, defensiveness, and attempts to invalidate the viewpoints of actual women. Oftentimes someone who pleads a lack of understanding will turn out to have no interest in actually gaining more understanding; they're just looking for an opportunity to tell you you're wrong.

So I get that someone who deals with this kind of bait-and-switch over and over when trying to have conversations about privilege and sexism can end up being suspicious of anyone who professes to want to learn more or understand better.

I have found myself in this kind of situation before. Even though I perhaps have more patience (or have been burned less) than some people, and will generally try to help people understand something until I'm convinced they're not actually interested in understanding, I have learned that sometimes I just have to refuse to engage. This is not just in the comment sections of other people's blogs and Facebook posts, but direct replies to me on Twitter or in my own blog comments. If I sense at all that you're not actually interested in learning without being defensive, I may just choose to ignore you.

Another option I've employed is to point the person to other resources (or to the Internet generally) and tell them that I'm willing to have a conversation once they've taken the time to read more about the issue on their own. This is particularly the case where I might run the risk of speaking for another group and would rather point someone to a first-person resource that explains why something is offensive or problematic.

What I've tried to avoid doing is attacking somebody for asking questions, particularly if they're asking for clarification on something I said. And again, maybe I'm able to do this because I haven't been involved in so many bait-and-switch conversations that I view everyone who asks questions as trolls who just want to tell me my arguments are invalid.

I mentioned above that Captain Awkward has been burned a number of times by questioners like this, and this led to her writing a biting response to a reader (another man with a question about approaching women) that she subsequently apologized for. She's since said she just won't take on any questions like this again.

Here's where I jumped into the conversation with Emily, and I want to be careful (based on a distinction later offered by Alyssa) to note that I'm not trying to say how any individual person should handle any specific situation. But I can't help but get frustrated that I often see people who I genuinely think want to learn and understand getting yelled at for daring to ask questions.

As I said to Alyssa, I'm not talking about situations where someone approaches a person, especially a person who's a member of a marginalized group, out of the blue and says, "Hey, explain to me why this is offensive/problematic/whatever." As has been explained countless times elsewhere, this is problematic because 1) you're expecting someone to take time out of their day to educate you when they've given no indication they want to do so, and 2) you're asking someone to speak for an entire group. And in the case of someone who's a member of a marginalized group, there's a likelihood that this person has had to answer this question for many other people as well, which puts the burden of educating a bunch of privileged people on someone who is already dealing with systemic obstacles, cultural biases, and other disadvantages. And that's not cool.

But I'm talking about situations where someone has already elected to put their viewpoint out there in a blog post, a comment, a tweet, whatever, to help other people understand better. These are the forums that are generally intended for dialogue and learning. And then someone else comes along and replies that they don't understand or want clarification on something.

Maybe they genuinely want to learn, and maybe they're one of the above-mentioned trolls who just wants to pick a fight to show that the original arguments are invalid. What frustrates me is that both groups are often treated the same way, getting an angry response along the lines of, "HOW DARE YOU! YOU'RE A TERRIBLE PERSON! IT'S NOT MY JOB TO EDUCATE YOU!"

I had an experience recently of being part of a discussion of (all white) people talking about why some particular things were racist. I was confused about one of the arguments made and asked a question about why that particular thing was considered racist. Unfortunately two other people followed up by basically saying, "Yeah! That's not racist at all, and neither are these other things!" The following commenter, also self-identified as white, apparently interpreted my original question in light of these responses (addressing her response to "Jessica and all those who agree with her") and proceeded to tear into me for even attempting to question the original argument.

I was completely taken aback by such a vicious response to what I intended to be a genuine request for clarification, but I felt that I couldn't say anything but "Thank you" or else be attacked further for trying to "tone police" the discussion.

So is saying all this stuff, about not attacking men who want to learn more, considered tone policing? Maybe. Tone policing is a derailing technique in which you refuse to engage with someone's arguments by insisting that the way they're saying them makes them wrong. Most often you'll see some variation of the argument, "If ____ wasn't so angry/whiny/etc., I could take their arguments seriously." This was exemplified by a recent post called "Are Christian Feminists Hurting Their Cause?" that was beautifully parodied by Dianna E. Anderson and analyzed by Katz at Chimaera.

A lot of the issues surrounding privilege, power, abuse, and the various -isms are really terrible things that are completely reasonable to get angry about and to let that anger show in how you talk and write about them, and doing so does not by itself mean that you are wrong. This is essence of calling out tone policing -- reminding others that they can't invalidate someone else's argument just because they don't like how it was said or because they got their feelings hurt.

On the other hand, as I've said before, there's a difference between calling out a problem and attacking an individual. Being angry that sexism exists, and pointing out specific examples of sexism that make you angry, might make people uncomfortable, but that doesn't mean you should stop doing it. However, I personally think there's a difference between getting angry at someone who does something sexist and getting angry at someone who wants to understand your thoughts on sexism better so they can be less sexist.

Again, I don't want to presume to tell anyone else what they should or shouldn't say or do. But I want to put it out there for consideration and discussion that some people who ask questions truly want to be allies, and that if you can't tell what someone's motives are, you have the option of not engaging or telling them to educate themselves on their own time without assuming their intentions and personally attacking them. It's not your job or obligation to education anyone, but if you're writing because you want to help people better understand your experience and become a better ally, then it seems to me that keeping an eye out among the trolls for the people who are trying to learn to be an ally is a worthwhile endeavor.


  1. Ok, I only had a second earlier to write that. I'm actually working on my own post about tone because I've been kind of confused about the battle I see about tone. I'll definitely be referencing this post and/or your storify conversation in what I write.

  2. i see a lot more feminists (and POC, LGBTQ people, survivors, etc...) shut down for allegedly questioning motive/assuming intent or launching personal attacks than i see evidence of either.

    1. I'm not sure I understand what you're saying, but I think you're saying that people get shut down by others more often than they shut down their would-be allies. Which may very well be true, but I'm not sure it's entirely relevant to what I'm talking about here. I'm calling out something I see that concerns me; the fact that there are other, more prevalent problems doesn't mean that this doesn't still exist or that it's not worth discussing. Does being treated badly ourselves mean that for some reason we should not reflect on how we treat others?

    2. i think it's entirely relevant. i believe you that you had a bad experience in that thread with rude people (of course), but you're painting something of a Bad Feminist! trend out of generals and not specifics.

      of course i agree personally in treating others with respect. i'm just not sure i'd agree with your particular interpretation of some of the unnamed incidents that lead you to this conclusion. i frequently see women/POC/LGBTQ people accused of questioning motives and launching personal attacks when i see zero evidence of either. it's a silencing tactic, and i wonder if in looking out for would-be allies you're throwing marginalized people under the bus.

      often we (as a community) agree on the terms of respectful discussion, but perception remains in the eye of the beholder. to me, "attack" is pretty clear cut, but in these conversations it frequently includes anything from namecalling and punching down (bad) to "feeling attacked"/uncomfortable with conflict (not the same).

    3. If I understand correctly, you don't disagree with my message, you just doubt that what I'm describing actually happens.

      I intentionally did not call out specific incidents for reasons I mentioned in the post -- that my goal is not to say "This person should have treated this person better in this situation." I do think, as you say, that different people have different perceptions of what's appropriate, which is why I don't want to tell any one person how to act, but rather am putting out a call to my community of fellow feminist bloggers to consider the difference between those who want to be allies and those who want to pick a fight, and to consider responding to them accordingly.

      To be clear, this post was not a result of the one specific incident I described. It was a response to the larger trend I (do actually) see of feminist bloggers responding harshly to male allies who want to better understand what they're writing about. Because I'm not male, I can't actually speak to being on the receiving end of those comments. But the situation I experienced was similar in that I felt I was not allowed to make any comment about how harshly I was responded to for asking a question, or else be called out for tone policing, even though (as I said here) I think the term has been used to cast a wider net than perhaps it was originally intended to address, which is why I brought it up.

      It may be true that "in looking out for would-be allies you're throwing marginalized people under the bus"; I'm just not seeing in your comment any argument that that's the case based on what I said. But I'm open to hearing that argument.

    4. Also, I don't know if you read through the Storify I linked, but both Emily and Alyssa said that they'd noticed the same things in the blogosphere.


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