A tone argument (also called tone policing) is a type of ad hominem aimed at the tone of an argument instead of its factual or logical content in order to dismiss a person's argument. Ignoring the truth or falsity of a statement, a tone argument instead focuses on the emotion with which it is expressed. This is a logical fallacy because a person can be angry while still being rational. Nonetheless, a tone argument may be useful when responding to a statement that itself does not have rational content, such as an appeal to emotion.[1]

The notion of tone policing became widespread in U.S. social activist circles by the mid-2010s. It was widely disseminated in a 2015 comic issued by the Everyday Feminism website.[2] Activists have argued that tone policing has been regularly employed against feminist and anti-racism advocates, criticizing the way that they presented their arguments rather than engaging with the arguments themselves.[3][4][5][6]

Proponents of this viewpoint contend that these expectations tend to give preference to a specific mode of communication often associated with traits like masculinity, high levels of education, and a detached, "rational" style of expression.[7] They argue that this emphasis on a particular communication style may inadvertently reinforce existing societal inequalities, including those rooted in colonial history, White-supremacist structures, cis-hetero-patriarchy, and capitalist systems.[8]

Tone policing may marginalize individuals who naturally incorporate diverse linguistic features, including frequent use of filler words such as "like" and "um," and employ vocal variety, including vocal fry and uptalk, in their speech.[9] Notably, in the realm of social justice, scholars and experts often underscore the significance of emotions, such as anger, as they are frequently associated with personal experiences of injustice and can serve as motivators for those engaged in social change efforts.[10]

The proliferation of social media platforms has contributed to the prevalence of tone policing in online discussions, particularly in contexts characterized by brevity and anonymity. In these digital environments, there is an increased focus on tone over substantive arguments.[11]

Psychological research has explored the potential effects of tone policing, suggesting that individuals consistently subjected to such policing can experience frustration, feelings of silencing, and self-doubt. This psychological toll can significantly deter individuals from actively participating in conversations pertaining to social justice matters.[12]

Additionally, it is noteworthy that educational institutions can be spaces where tone policing manifests, particularly when students advocate for change or raise concerns about systemic inequalities. This may influence communication norms within academic settings.[13]

See also


  1. ^ Chhokra, Shubhankar (8 April 2016). "The Myth of Tone Policing". The Harvard Crimson.
  2. ^ Hugs, Robot (2015-12-07). "No, We Won't Calm Down – Tone Policing Is Just Another Way to Protect Privilege". Everyday Feminism. Retrieved 2023-06-25.
  3. ^ Singh, Shambhavi Raj (July 17, 2020). "Infographic: What Is Tone Policing And Why Is It Wrong?". Feminism In India. Archived from the original on 2022-08-08. Retrieved 2022-09-14.
  4. ^ "How Tone Policing Is Used to Silence Black Women". Blackburn Center. February 24, 2021. Archived from the original on 2022-06-15. Retrieved 2022-09-14.
  5. ^ MacLachlan, Alice (May 10, 2022). "Tone-Policing and the Assertion of Authority". Blog of the APA. Archived from the original on 2022-05-27. Retrieved 2022-09-14.
  6. ^ Oluo, Ijeoma (January 2018). So you want to talk about race. Seal Press. p. 201. ISBN 9781580058827.
  7. ^ Gillies, Kyra (2017). "Intersectional poetry: Spoken poetry as a platform for feminist thought free from tone policing". Women's Studies Journal. 31 (1): 88–94 – via ebsco.
  8. ^ Prescod-Weinstein, Chanda (2015-11-02). "WHAT'S THE HARM IN TONE POLICING?". Medium. Retrieved 2023-09-28.
  9. ^ "Why Policing the Way Voices Sound Has to Stop". Boston University. 2020-09-18. Retrieved 2023-09-28.
  10. ^ Vandermeulen, Daan; Hasan Aslih, Siwar; Shuman, Eric; Halperin, Eran (2023). "Protected by the Emotions of the Group: Perceived Emotional Fit and Disadvantaged Group Members' Activist Burnout". Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin. 49 (7): 1086–1096. doi:10.1177/01461672221092853. ISSN 0146-1672. PMC 10302361. PMID 35549948.
  11. ^ González‐Bailón, Sandra; Lelkes, Yphtach (2023). "Do social media undermine social cohesion? A critical review". Social Issues and Policy Review. 17 (1): 155–180. doi:10.1111/sipr.12091. ISSN 1751-2395. S2CID 255365888.
  12. ^ Tyler, Kenneth M.; Stevens-Watkins, Danelle; Burris, Jennifer L.; Fisher, Sycarah D.; Hargons, Candice N. (2022). "Black Psychology and Whiteness: Toward a Conceptual Model of Black Trauma through the Prism of Whiteness". Journal of Black Psychology. 48 (1): 5–42. doi:10.1177/00957984211034948. ISSN 0095-7984. S2CID 238796216.
  13. ^ Williams, Brittany M. (2023-04-03). ""It's Just My Face:" Workplace Policing of Black Professional Women in Higher Education". Journal of Women and Gender in Higher Education. 16 (2): 67–89. doi:10.1080/26379112.2023.2172730. ISSN 2637-9112. S2CID 257964070.