Thursday, July 31, 2014

In defense of tone tinkering

In the interest of furthering discussion on the issue, I’d like to preempt a few anticipated feminist retorts to the second half of my last post on how feminists can improve their tone.

Counterargument #1: Tone tinkering, or tone policing?

I’d first like to address the accusation that feminist readers of my last post were doubtlessly screaming into their keyboards in boldfaced caps-lock letters:


To the uninitiated, this is because what’s called “tone policing” is a nasty word in the feminist community. Tone policing is allegedly a diversionary tactic, designed to change the subject from something important (the issue at hand) to something unrelated (the manner in which that issue is discussed). It’s also viewed as a form of censorship. “Who are you to regulate how oppressed peoples express their frustration at being oppressed?” an indignant feminist might retort. “Men don’t get to control how women react to the patriarchy. I’ll say what I want, how I want, and you can get the hell over it!”

I agree with feminists that external tone policing is unhelpful in the context of a specific discussion. Calling out somebody else on the tone with which they address you is nitpicking, thin-skinned censorship, not to mention irrelevant to the topic at hand. All participants in a debate should remain on topic to the best of their ability. If you find yourself being derided or unfairly attacked, it’s generally on you to be the bigger person and address the issue underneath the derision.

But just because others cannot always expect you to speak to them nicely does not mean it isn’t wise to try.

Therein lies the difference, I argue, between tone policing – indignantly demanding that others be nicer to you in the midst of an ongoing discussion – and what I’ll call tone tinkering: a form of preemptive, strategic self-regulation designed to maximize the likelihood that the upcoming conversation will be productive and convincing. Tone tinkering is what I advocated in my last post, and what I’ll advocate with regard to feminism in particular in this post.

The unwillingness of most feminists to tinker their tones for anybody anywhere reveals a pretty remarkable double standard built into feminist thinking about the patriarchy: feminists get indignant when others tone police them, even as they vigilantly and unabashedly tone police others. If a man says something nasty and insulting to a woman, it’s seen as misogyny: a severe enough infraction to get him banned from the discussion. But if a woman says something nasty and insulting to a man, it isn’t seen as misandry (which, feminists assure us, “isn’t a thing”) – it’s merely an expression of her wholly justifiable frustration about misogyny! I lamented this double standard in an earlier post:

“[Say p]erson A and Person B disagree about something. Person A has less privilege, on net, than Person B. This incidental stroke of fate means, according to feminists, that Person “A can say whatever they like to Person B, no matter how offensive. They can scream, they can hurl obscenities, they can levy personal attacks, and they are freed from the necessity of making any sense as they do so, because they have a right to free expression and find it empowering. Any objection from Person B should be decried as “tone policing”. Any emotional reaction this produces in Person B should be scorned as making the discussion “all about them.” Any psychological distress this creates in Person B should be ignored or even ridiculed. In fact, Person B should be grateful for the knowledge which Person A’s obscenity laden rants have provided them.

Meanwhile, the only thing Person B needs to do to get removed from the group is express any opinion to which Person A objects. When this happens, the simple fact that Person A has objected is expected to change Person B’s mind, and produce an immediate, unquestioning apology.

I yearn for a feminism that was about eliminating double standards between men and women, as opposed to erecting more.”

Of course, to anyone who isn’t already indoctrinated into feminist ideology, this is just the sort of unworkable circular logic likely to make them roll their eyes and run to an MRA group.

As someone who mostly is indoctrinated into feminist ideology, however, I prefer to tease out the excesses from the good stuff. The logic underlying the feminist position on tone-policing is simply that sexism hurts women more than men. To many feminists, it follows that those discussing sexism must be remarkably sensitive to the emotional duress female participants, but need not be even remotely sensitive to the emotional duress of male participants. At times this is reasonable. For example, feminists rightly see an enormous distinction between the psychic distress that arises in women when they rehash unpleasant personal experiences with sexism, and the mental discomfort that arises in men when they have their privilege illuminated and challenged. The first perpetuates sexism, while the second combats it. Sensitivity is more justified in some situations than others.

However, we have to be specific about what those situations are, and too many feminists broaden the above distinction into an umbrella justification for vitriol. There is a noticeable tendency to purposely provoke and exacerbate defensiveness in male participants with aggressive rhetoric, an instinct to resort to tone #2 as the default in all conversations. This behavior may be therapeutic, but it’s also counterproductive. People are only convinced of something under certain circumstances, and those circumstances don’t change when the speaker happens to be systematically disadvantaged. Oppressed peoples are not exempt from the rules which enable productive discourse in every other venue of human discussion. One of those rules is that the manner in which a message is delivered impacts an audience’s receptiveness to that message. If feminists want to spread their message to as many people as possible, they have to recognize what I explained last post: different tones are better equipped for different situations.

Counterargument #2: What happened to free speech, dude?

If feminists who read my last post were shouting into their keyboards then, any who bothered to click on the hyperlinks I provided to earlier posts of mine about feminism are probably shouting even louder:

“This guy is such a hypocrite!”

This is because as recently as last week, I a series of posts passionately defending free speech, which included the following excerpts:

·         “I feel ideologically, intellectually threatened by the idea that because those conversations are likely to offend, they are therefore fruitless and a hassle and not worth the bother.”
·         “Even this post gave feminists more deference than is normal; that I had to fret so heavily and tread so lightly in phrasing my beliefs is itself an indication that other men feel pressured to do the same. This inhibits the debate by preventing many productive, change-inducing conversations from ever taking place. When the threat of scathing feminist call-out culture scares us away from your movement, it scares us away from learning about the topic at all.”
·         “the extension of the hypersensitivity one might expect at a rape clinic or PTSD counseling session to cover the entire universe, on the basis that every individual with an opinion has an obligation to present it (or not) in a manner that is “emotionally safe” for those the left has designated as amply oppressed….is complete bullshit, and I want to denounce it in no uncertain terms.”

So here I am, asserting my right to “offend” by “phrasing my beliefs” in a way that isn’t “hypersensitive” to people’s “emotional safety,” and now it seems I’m trying to restrict the ways feminists can express their opinions. What a hypocrite I am, right? At first glance, it would appear I’ve inverted the problem I described above: am I not suggesting that female feminists have should tone police themselves, but I need not do so myself?

Not quite. Here it is important to distinguish between two types of psychic discomfort: the cognitive dissonance that results from encountering information or argument that runs contrary to your beliefs, and the personal offense that results when that information or argument is presented in an abrasive manner. More specifically, there is a difference between the uneasiness that people feel when confronted with an idea they find incompatible with their previous beliefs, and the defensiveness that people feel when they are addressed in an aggressive, angry, accusatory or attacking tone. The most important of these differences is that the second can be avoided without sacrificing the vibrancy and progression of the public discussion. As a self-anointed steward of that discussion, my consistent position throughout all my recent blog entries has been that the first is okay, while the second is undesirable.

So yes, I have been imploring audiences to overcome that first type of mental discomfort, because it is not only unavoidable, but healthy and productive. We should encourage people to seek it out, wrestle with it, and ultimately get over it. At the same time, yes, I am also imploring speakers to avoid imposing the second type of mental discomfort, because it is not only unnecessary, but toxic and counterproductive. Those who truly care about spreading their ideas should avoid or minimize it whenever possible. Following both rules enables healthy, respectful, enthusiastic conversation that is neither polluted by emotionally reactionary personal attacks, nor hindered by the fear of inciting such attacks, on either end. That is what I’m after.

Counterargument #3: What about libertarians?

Admittedly, I don’t get off that easy. If tone tinkering is important for the effectiveness of feminism, it follows that it’s also important to the effectiveness of libertarianism. Accusing one movement without the other would be to apply a double standard rooted in favoritism for my original ideological roots. Do I have evidence that I cared about tone before feminism came into the scene?

The answer is yes. You can finds example of me chastising libertarians for unwise tone selection here, and here, and here. Lest you think I am some rare exception among libertarians, other libertarians do it too.

Additionally, I had planned another post that I did not get around to posting titled “To Win Respect, Libertarians must Profess Professionally.” It would be sort of redundant to post now, but the notes I had kept on a word document read as follows:

àcommon tactic of our enemies is to denigrate us with personal attacks without engaging our ideas, only way people will take us seriously is if we present ourselves professionally.

àif you want to win respect and consideration, the severity of your ideas must be checked by the moderate and rational air with which you carry yourself. The establishment is out to marginalize us, so we have to hold ourselves to a higher standard of debating conduct, professional and mature, no personal attacks, issues only.

àGive Dad’s advice about not labeling groups of people, because it makes people defensive, you can attack mindsets but don’t make the mistake of clustering that mindset with a demographic or you won’t convince that demographic, say “those of the more liberal mindset” rather than “liberals”, etc.

àperhaps frame it as a letter to other libertarians?

àPerhaps make it part of a larger post about “Strategies for Libertarians”, how we should present our message to maximize our appeal.
1. Part one is the above about being calm and rational,
2. part two is about never using the logical fallacies the other side uses, and calmly, politely pointing it out when they do,
3. part three is to be hopeful and optimistic, not so negative, speak in consequentialist terms about all the good that our policies can do

I continue to endorse these strategies, and urge my fellow libertarians to employ them. The heart of the matter is that we as social activists seeking support should speak differently to individuals who do not already hold our ideology than we do to one another – just as politicians seeking votes speak differently to independents than they do to their base or to the opposition in a debate.

1 comment:

  1. The last thing I want to say about this is in regard to the final paragraph of counterargument #2: if you have to choose only one of those rules to follow, choose the first. It is preferable to have a clash of ideas in which the ideas are seeped in caustic vitriol than it is to have no debate at all. At least that plants the seed. It may take awhile longer than it otherwise would for people to get over their hurt feelings, but if you really are right, and they think on it long enough, they should eventually come around. That cannot happen if the conversation never takes place.

    So my preferences read as follows:
    1. Civil debate
    2. Uncivil debate
    3. Politely agreeing to disagree
    4. Lobbing personal attacks at one another without addressing any substantive issues in the process