Tone policing (listed above as "Responding to tone") on Graham's Hierarchy of Disagreement
Tone policing (listed above as "Responding to tone") on Graham's Hierarchy of Disagreement

Tone policing (also tone trolling, tone argument, and tone fallacy) is an ad hominem (personal attack) and anti-debate tactic based on criticizing a person for expressing emotion. Tone policing detracts from the truth or falsity of a statement by attacking the tone in which it was presented rather than the message itself.[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. Many activists[who?] argued that tone policing was regularly employed against feminist and anti-racism advocates, criticizing the way that they presented their arguments rather than engaging with the arguments themselves.

Tone policing has been described by one writer as "when someone (usually a privileged person) in a conversation or situation about oppression shifts the focus of the conversation from the oppression being discussed to the way it is being discussed. Tone policing prioritizes the comfort of the privileged person in the situation over the oppression of the disadvantaged person."[2]


Tone policing is often aimed at women and may derive from the stereotype that women are more emotional than men and particularly the angry black woman stereotype. In Bailey Poland's book Harassment, Abuse, and Violence Online, she addresses that tone policing is frequently aimed at women and attempts to derail or silence opponents who may be lower on the "privilege ladder". She identifies tone policing as a form of cybersexism, as it enables men to dominate women in debates by acting as authorities on what approaches were acceptable. The men, by focusing on women's tone, made the outcome of the debate not based on the argument, but rather on the man's use of either "respectful" interaction or aggressive harassment.

Women in many conversations online are placed in a no-win situation in which their speech becomes grounds for disagreement and harassment regardless of topic or conversational strategies, and their points are ignored or discarded...While anyone can engage in tone policing, it is frequently aimed at women as a way to prevent a woman from making a point in the discussion.[3]

In Keith Bybee's How Civility Works, he notes that feminists, Black Lives Matter protesters, and anti-war protesters have been told to "calm down and try to be more polite". He argues that tone policing is a means to deflect attention from injustice and relocate the problem in the style of the complaint, rather than address the complaint itself.[4]

Possible misuses

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Writing for The Harvard Crimson, Shubhankar Chhokra argued that while it is unfair to dismiss feminists or Donald Trump supporters because they are angry, often also open dialogue in search of truth is condemned as tone policing.[5]

See also


  1. ^ "How tone policing legitimizes injustice (and private police)". The Johns Hopkins News-Letter. Archived from the original on 2020-06-04. Retrieved 2020-06-04.
  2. ^ Oluo, Ijeoma (January 2018). So you want to talk about race. Seal Press. pp. 205–206. ISBN 9781580058827.
  3. ^ Bailey Poland (2016) Haters: Harassment, Abuse, and Violence Online Archived 2020-02-23 at the Wayback Machine, p. 46. University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 9781612348728.
  4. ^ Keith Bybee (2016) How Civility Works Archived 2020-02-22 at the Wayback Machine, p. 30. Stanford University Press. ISBN 9781503601543.
  5. ^ Chhokra, Shubhankar (April 8, 2016). "The Myth of Tone Policing". The Harvard Crimson.