Boundary Setting vs Tone Policing

Lately I’ve been disturbed by the tendency among many progressive folks to conflate boundary setting with tone policing.

When I tell people that I have a very strong preference not to be yelled at or called names, they say, “But isn’t that kind of tone policing?”

If it is, then I’ll have to admit to tone policing, because being able to set boundaries in my own space is important enough to me to risk pissing people off. In fact, as anyone who sets boundaries with any regularity knows, it’s a surefire way to piss people off no matter what kind of boundaries they are.

This is a complex topic so I will do my best to be nuanced about it. I’m going to state upfront (and I will return to this later) that tone policing is a real and harmful phenomenon, and that sometimes (not always) setting boundaries can include tone policing. That is true, and it is also true that the concept is sometimes misapplied in ways that are intended to justify cruel or even abusive behavior.

What is tone policing?

Tone policing is when more-powerful people dismiss the real concerns and call-outs of less-powerful people because of the tone they use. For instance, if I see a person of color posting “FUCK these racist-ass cops” and I respond, “You may have a point there but aren’t you being a little too angry about this?”, then I’m tone policing. Either the person has a point or they don’t; the tone is irrelevant to that. More-privileged people tend to assume that if someone is being really angry about an injustice that affects them, then their assessment of the situation is not to be trusted because it’s too clouded with emotion. In fact, the opposite is probably true; they’re probably so angry because it’s so damn awful. Not only is it perfectly healthy and appropriate for them to express anger at situations that are truly infuriating, but that anger can be an important signal to those who don’t experience that particular injustice, because it lets them know: pay attention. There’s something going on here.

Tone policing can also happen in a more interpersonal context. If a man I know refers to another woman as a slut and I say, “Whoa, what the fuck, don’t ever call a woman that!”, it would be tone policing for him to totally dismiss my concern and respond by criticizing my tone. Tone policers often also add a patronizing little bit about how “if you’d said it differently I would’ve listened to you,” proving that they are, in fact, perfectly capable of listening, they’re just choosing not to in this moment.

Anger vs meanness, intent vs impact

Sometimes the concept of tone policing is over-applied. For starters, people sometimes conflate anger and meanness. It’s possible to express anger without being mean. For instance, you can say, “Fuck you for saying that, you worthless piece of shit,” or you can say, “What you just said is really messed up and really pisses me off.” Part of the problem of tone policing is that people will often misinterpret the latter statement as mean and overly angry, too, but they would be wrong. The latter statement is honest and direct and not intended to hurt anyone’s feelings. It’s intended to express anger.

If someone hears “Fuck you for saying that, you worthless piece of shit” and responds with, “Whoa, it’s not ok to speak to me that way,” they’re often told that they’re tone policing and trying to prevent someone else from expressing anger. That’s not the case. The fact that someone has a boundary around being referred to as a “worthless piece of shit” doesn’t mean they’re unwilling to hear that someone is angry with them, or that they think the other person’s feelings are invalid.

And yes, sometimes the person who’s angry is so hurt that all they’re able to say is “Fuck you for saying that, you worthless piece of shit.” It happens, and I think we should all, if we can, try to practice compassion for people who say mean things from a place of deep (often structural) hurt.

However, that doesn’t actually negate someone else’s boundaries. As we’re all fond of saying, intent isn’t impact. I don’t have to accept being called a worthless piece of shit just because someone else is legitimately upset.

Emotional boundaries are a social justice issue

Why might someone have a boundary about being screamed at or being called a worthless piece of shit? Sure, it could be because they just want to stew in their privilege and avoid any criticism of their words or actions.

Or it could be because of their own abuse history. Some people who were screamed at or called worthless pieces of shit by abusers may be triggered by it now. Or they may just be unwilling to allow anyone to speak to them that way ever again. (Remember that one of the functions of abuse is to make the victim feel worthless, so if you’re using language that’s intended to make someone feel worthless, you are utilizing abusive dynamics, even if the other person has more privilege than you on some axis.)

It could also be because of their mental health issues. Many people with anxiety can shut down and become nonverbal when spoken to extremely harshly. Screaming at someone can trigger a panic attack. Calling a person with suicidal ideation “worthless” or “a piece of shit” can provoke them to harm themselves, since it confirms the worst things they tell themselves.

Unfortunately, when someone has a mental illness, these types of responses are a risk no matter what. Sometimes even the most gentle criticism can cause a person with depression to spiral into self-hatred. But just because we can’t prevent all harm doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to prevent some harm, and a good place to start is by respecting stated boundaries. If someone tells you they can’t handle being yelled at, assume they have a good reason for setting that boundary, because they probably do.

But I’m going to take it one step further to say this: you don’t need to be triggered by something, or experience strong negative reactions to it, in order to have the right to set boundaries around it.

I say this for three reasons. One is that if we set thresholds for “acceptable” boundaries, then we’ll be effectively forcing people to out themselves as abuse survivors or mental illness sufferers or whatever in order to be able to set their boundaries. That’s not okay with me.

The second is that many people–especially marginalized people–are often not immediately aware of the harm that something (or someone) is doing to them. That’s because we’re taught to ignore our own feelings and treat them as invalid until “proven” by the “evidence.” Sometimes all we really get–if anything–is a vague sense of unease that we’re tempted to immediately dismiss as “not a big deal.” No, don’t dismiss it. Listen to that unease. Act on it. Set the boundary. You can always unset it later if you decide it really isn’t a big deal. It’s much easier to walk back a boundary than it is to set one after years of putting up with something that’s hurting you.

The third reason is that I believe in giving people agency over their own space, physical and mental. I think people should be able to decide what is and is not okay for them. I think that if we start treating all boundaries as valid, we might start to make a serious dent in rape culture, because right now, one of the ways in which rape culture operates is by requiring people to justify their boundaries before those boundaries will be respected–and if the justification doesn’t satisfy someone, they feel free to violate the boundary. How often have I set a boundary only to be told, “Well, that doesn’t make any sense so I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing”? Disturbingly often.

When does boundary setting become tone policing?

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure. I can’t draw up a flowchart or anything. But there are some heuristics that I think might be helpful here, so here are some questions you could try asking yourself.

  • Am I policing my own space, or theirs? “Policing” has negative connotations for all sorts of valid reasons, but I actually think it’s okay to police your own space. Your own space can mean: your home, your Facebook page, your blog’s comments section, your Twitter mentions, your email inbox, a conversation involving you. There’s a difference between “Please don’t speak to me that way” and “You shouldn’t use that kind of angry language; nobody will listen to you that way.” The latter is very obviously an attempt to dictate how that person should behave in general, outside of any interactions with you. That’s tone policing and it’s not right.
  • Am I trying to avoid criticism? Or, a more useful way to phrase this might be, Is there any way they could’ve expressed what they needed to say that would’ve been okay for me? Would that have been a reasonable expectation? Think through different ways the person could’ve told you what they told you and see if there are any that would’ve fallen within your boundaries. If not–or if your boundaries require them to perform superhuman feats of emotional control and charitability–you may be trying to avoid criticism. (In a future blog post, I plan to address ways in which setting boundaries can become problematic within close relationships.)
  • Am I able to acknowledge what they’re trying to express even if the way they express it crosses my boundaries? Part of the problem with tone policing is that it’s a way to dismiss valid points based on the tone they’re said with. If someone says, “Fuck you for saying that, you worthless piece of shit,” you can still say, “Whoa, I’m so sorry I hurt you,” before adding, “please don’t use that kind of language with me, though.” You can also say, “I want to acknowledge what I’ve done wrong, but before I can talk about this I need to ask you not to use that kind of language because it triggers me,” or “I want to keep discussing this but I can’t stay in this conversation unless we can avoid calling each other names.” Some people will not respond well to this, but then you’re well within your rights to quietly step out of the discussion and perhaps return to it later. The important part is that you acknowledge the content of what they say rather than just the tone they say it with.
  • Am I taking responsibility for my own emotional needs? People who are just starting to learn how to set boundaries often fall into the trap of If I Only Express My Boundaries Correctly People Will Respect Them. Unfortunately, this is not always true. If you’re in a conversation with someone who is screaming at you and calling you names because they feel hurt by you, it’s not really enough to repeat at them, “Please do not speak to me that way.” Maybe they can’t speak to you in any other way right now. Therefore, if being spoken to that way is unacceptable to you, it’s your responsibility to remove yourself from the situation in a compassionate way. Don’t flounce, lay blame, or be passive-aggressive; it doesn’t matter whose “fault” it is and there’s probably no way to know. Just say, “I’m sorry, I can’t continue with this discussion” and then leave. The “and then leave” is the most important part–if you keep telling people that their behavior is unacceptable to you and that you have to leave but then you don’t actually leave, you send the message that your boundaries are permeable. I know, it’s really hard to actually leave, but sometimes it’s the only way to protect your boundaries. And remember that if you barely know this person and they’re yelling at you online, you don’t actually owe them any explanations or even any response at all. It’s okay to just disengage immediately and be done with it.
  • If I asked a friend whom I trust to kindly call me out on my shit, what would they say? When we get challenged, we often get defensive and take things too personally. If you have a friend you know won’t let you get away with crap, ask them or imagine what they might say. Would they say, “Whoa, this person seems like they’re really trying to hurt you,” or would they say, “Uh, you’re kinda being a jerk here”?

Ultimately, nobody can answer these questions for you, not even the person who’s yelling at you/calling you names. We all owe it to each other to be as self-aware as we can be when it comes to our boundaries and why we draw them where we do.

Accusations of tone policing as a cover for abuse

In social justice spaces, people who want to abuse others use the language of social justice to do so. That’s how they fly under the radar of people who would otherwise call them out on the abuse and interfere. Social justice spaces are not unique that way. In academic spaces, abusers use letters of recommendation, lab positions, and publication opportunities to abuse. In the music industry, abusers use contracts and “mentorship” to abuse. In the kink scene, they claim that their abuse is just “who they are” because it’s part of their kink. Abusers use whatever is available, and it’s practically inevitable that abusive people will latch on to a concept like tone policing. It’s too perfect not to.

What makes the concept of tone policing so perfect for abusers is that they tend to see themselves as the victim in the situation. Abusers often feel that they have no choice but to do what they’re doing, even if on some level they know it’s wrong (and may even want to stop). In a social justice context, an abuser may use the concept of tone policing to avoid responsibility for the way they speak to a friend or partner and the ways they use words to hurt them. This article does a wonderful job of explaining some of these dynamics in the context of close relationships.

I can easily imagine a situation in which someone screams at their partner and calls them names whenever they get angry, and any attempt by the screamed-at partner to set boundaries leads to accusations of tone policing and invalidation and “making me feel unsafe” and such. In fact, I don’t have to imagine it because it’s happened to people I know.

The fact that tone policing is such a convenient tool for abusers to appropriate doesn’t mean the concept itself is flawed and should be thrown out–especially since tone policing itself can be an abusive tactic. I’m sure that only a small minority of tone policing claims have an abusive function, but it’s still important to be aware of the ways in which abusers can turn even the most useful and important concepts and language into tools of abuse.

Tone policing and multiaxial oppression

One of the problems with tone policing as a concept is that, like many concepts related to privilege and oppression, it works best in an isolated situation where two people are almost exactly identical except for a major difference along one axis of privilege. Suppose that in a discussion about sexism, a woman calls a man a “worthless piece of shit” because of something he said. He asks her not to call him that and she responds by accusing him of tone policing. To a lot of people in the social justice internet, this has become normal and reasonable, and the woman’s response would be validated.

But what if we also know that the woman is white and the man is Black, or the woman is able-bodied and the man has a disability? What are the implications of a white woman calling a Black man a “worthless piece of shit,” or of an able-bodied person calling a person with a disability that? What are the implications of a person of color trying (and failing) to set boundaries with a white person, or of a person with a disability doing the same with an able-bodied person?

It is tempting here to create a hierarchy of oppressions so that we know exactly who is “allowed” to use abusive language with whom, but that’s the wrong path for a number of reasons. One is that you can’t possibly create a hierarchy like that in any sort of useful way. Another is that it just turns into an excuse to hurt people without consequences.

Here I may be accused of “defending” straight white men who say terrible things to marginalized folks online. But if it’s the case that I’m defending them, then I’m defending a hell of a lot of other people, too: the queer white girl who grew up in a trailer in West Virginia who never finished high school and has no idea what all the “right” language is; the recent Mexican immigrant who accidentally uses a slur; the Black trans man who is doing his best to push back against the toxic masculinity that he was taught he needs to adopt in order to be seen as a man; the trans lesbian who picked up some crappy ideas about bisexual people; the straight cis Asian man who is tottering on the edge of attempting suicide because of his untreated depression.

All of these people should get to set boundaries and have those boundaries respected. It’s not just for straight white men, even if many straight white men seem to think so.

But if they refuse to hear about it, how will they learn?

Of course, a major concern here is that if people can just conveniently boundary-set their way out of being called out on social justice topics, then they’re never going to learn to be better.

This is obviously a possibility. It is necessary for people to sometimes hear things they don’t want to hear and to be uncomfortable if they’re ever going to grow, and this applies to everything and not just social justice. Criticism in the workplace can be hard to hear, criticism from partners can be hard to hear, and criticism from social justice advocates can be hard to hear. All of these criticisms have the potential to be destructive and abusive, but they can also be constructive and healthy.

But this reminds me a lot of the conversation about trigger warnings and the possibility that people who do not actually have triggers will use them to avoid “challenging” material. Yes, it can happen. But what about the people who do have triggers? Are we ready to throw them under the bus for the sake of someone else’s enlightenment?

This is why this issue is best approached from multiple angles. Plenty of people, myself included, have written pieces about what to do when you’re called out for saying or doing something oppressive, and we all encourage folks to do their best to set aside pride, defensiveness, and shame in order to learn from the experience. This piece is not my final or only word on the issue. Just as people have a responsibility to respect others’ boundaries, including in discussions about social justice, people also have a responsibility to do their best to hear others’ criticisms and do better. Maybe if we approach the issue in this two-pronged way, we can reduce the incidence of people avoiding difficult conversations out of discomfort.

I think that boundaries are so important that I would rather respect someone’s boundary and let them be wrong about something I care a lot about than disrespect that boundary by trying to change their mind.

Yelling, Name-Calling, and Accessibility

I’d like to close with this: preventing people from setting boundaries around getting yelled at or called names creates a serious accessibility issue in social justice spaces.

As I’ve mentioned, abuse survivors and neurodivergent people are two important groups that are likely to have a lot of trouble with some of the harsh language and conversational norms in many social justice settings. This does not mean that the language and the norms themselves are bad or wrong. It’s just competing access needs, again.

Some people really need a space where it is permissible for them to scream at someone and call them a worthless piece of shit. Some people really need a space where that doesn’t happen, or, if it does, they get to say “Please don’t do that” and have that boundary respected. Both of these needs are valid, but so far, most social justice discourse has only been treating that first one as valid.

Not everyone who gets screamed at and called a worthless piece of shit in social justice spaces is a straight white cis middle-or-upper-class Christian able-bodied neurotypical man with no history of abuse, assault, or mental illness. In fact, because that’s such a tiny minority of human beings, it’s probably a pretty tiny minority of the people who get screamed at and called worthless pieces of shit.

When I made a Facebook post about this a few weeks ago, it rapidly filled up with comments from people–women, people of color, trans people, queer people, neurodivergent people–who all admitted that they cannot handle some of the conversational norms in many social justice spaces because they can’t deal with being yelled at. Many of them cited histories of abuse and/or mental illness as explanations.

If your space permits yelling, name-calling, and other intense and stressful communication styles, then your space will be inaccessible to many people, including many of the people it is intended to serve. That is an acceptable trade-off to make as long as you’re aware that the trade-off exists in the first place. That some people will not be able to access your space is not a personal failing on their part, and should they end up in your space and try to set boundaries around how they’re being communicated with, it’s not okay to insist that their boundaries are wrong.

The question of what to do when someone else’s boundaries hurt someone else is a challenging one that I don’t pretend to be able to answer definitively. But I do hope I’ve managed to complicate this idea that it’s not okay to set limits about how people interact with us in our own spaces, even when the subject of the interaction has to do with social justice.

Further reading: “Are All Boundaries Valid?

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Boundary Setting vs Tone Policing

12 thoughts on “Boundary Setting vs Tone Policing

  1. 1

    A little OT observation:

    Yes, anger is a powerful emotion and good motivator to action. However, it doesn’t excuse abusive behavior. Calling people worthless pieces of shit is abusive behavior. This type of abusive behavior seems to run rampant online in all types of circles, but in social justice circles seems to get it’s own special set of justifications.

    Some people are just abusive and get their kicks abusing people. But my read is that social justice issues are really complicated. You can have competing interests with no clear solution (example: need for more rape prosecutions v. more prosecutions leads to more people of color locked in cages). People interested in social justice issues can be high on emotion and motivation, but low on expertise. Therefore, arguments about social justice often substitute emotion for expertise, with predictable results.

    1. 1.1

      Not OT at all; I think you’ve hit on one of the core dynamics here. While many people in social justice spaces will acknowledge that there are abusive people within these spaces, their (rightful) desire to hear marginalized voices often causes them to excuse behavior that really is inexcusable.

  2. 2

    Good post. You promised to do your best “to be nuanced about it” and you really did this. I agree with many things you wrote; in particular, I share your belief “in giving people agency over their own space, physical and mental”. Just one addition.

    Not only is it perfectly healthy and appropriate for them to express anger at situations that are truly infuriating, but that anger can be an important signal to those who don’t experience that particular injustice, because it lets them know: pay attention. There’s something going on here.

    I’m less and less sensitive to anger and I suspect that this is not only my experience.
    Nowadays *everyone* is angry on the net. Feminists are angry. MRAs are angry. Muslims are angry. White supporters of Trump are angry. Catholics in my country are angry. Atheists are angry. Homosexuals, heterosexuals, vegans, nudists, cis, trans, those on the left, on the right and in the centre – all of them bloody angry.

    All these people have been given the initial message that it’s “perfectly healthy and appropriate for them to express anger”. Well, perhaps there is nothing wrong with the message as such … still, it is my impression that in the final outcome the expressions of anger have become too normal to have any special meaning. I think, in effect, that to a significant degree, anger lost its role of an important signal. On the contrary: shouts of anger form a typical background noise which you learn to ignore. Because it’s everywhere, you stop paying attention. That’s what happened to me and, as I said, I strongly suspect that I’m quite typical in this respect.

    1. 2.1

      I think both things might be true here. I think all of these expressions of anger are telling us something valid and important about people and the world they live in (even though their ideas about what’s causing the anger aren’t always accurate), and I also think you’re right that anger is becoming background noise for many of us.

      For what it’s worth, I try to cultivate my online feeds and spaces such that anger isn’t actually the default, so that when I do hear anger, it can still serve as an important cue.

  3. 4

    In connection with how angry everyone is on the internet these days, there’s an interesting article somewhere about memes (not the lol jokes kind, but the perpetuation of ideas) and how the competition for idea-space on the internet helps to promote the most rage-inducing ideas, because the more a concept makes people get really really angry and talk about the thing, the more that thing spreads…

    Anger can be healthy and useful and possibly even necessary for motivating us to change things. But too much anger, without a direct and immediate target to actually apply that change to, just breeds more anger.

    Calling someone (nonconsensually) a worthless piece of shit is a kind of attack, and unless there’s something important that needs to be accomplished through that attack, it’s not an ideal thing to do. Even if the target is the radiant heterosexual cis white christian neurotypical male of weath etc etc. It’s not an ideal thing to do if it’s not necessary.

    Real people are not perfect and ideal, and people’s points and needs should not be dismissed because of their failure to act in an ideal manner, obviously!

    But that behavior shouldn’t be celebrated as a sign of progress in itself. Raging blindly and ineffectually at the unfair world isn’t inherently good. Finding your anger and learning to use it productively should be, IMO, seen as far more admirable.

  4. 5

    […] Tone policing doesn’t just happen on the person to person level; it also happens on macro levels.  You don’t have to try hard to find a concern trolling political commentator either on conservative or false neutrality media ranting and raving about protesters of “social justice warriors” in how protests become riots, and so on.  Instead of focusing on the CAUSE why folks are taking to the streets in the first place, mainstream (or whitestream?) media focuses on the RESPONSE to the traumatic event.  The whitestream media will often then naturalize the behavior, as in, instead of understanding the circumstances that leads to a riot, they naturalize the behavior onto the marginalized group, in essence saying, “Well they are black people. They riot. It’s what black people do.” […]

  5. 6

    Thank you for this really informative and enlightening post — and one that I think is particularly important now post-election. I am seeing so much in-fighting and name calling and hurting on the left right now, and I fear that it’s making some shut down or not take action.

  6. 7

    Sending you all the love and thanks I can for your article. I am a gay Black man moderating a Facebook group centered on social justice and eliminating oppression within my profession. I’m finding myself having to negotiate these boundaries with other people of color who tend to use abusive rhetorical strategies in conversation against White people who deserves the anger and criticism, but not the abuse. Knowing where the boundaries lie between boundary setting and tone policing really helps me moderate that space.

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