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.