“An open letter to the tone troll”

You know who you are.

George Waye lays it all out for you.

Hi there!

I bet you’re wondering why I’m writing you this letter.  You might even be wondering why people are all so mad at you right now- and why they are calling you mean names.  I know, I know- you were only trying to help, right?  You just wanted to see a little decorum, a little civility- and everyone is just amplifying the very thing you are trying to help them discard.  It must be frustrating.  It must feel as though you are experiencing the cruel effects of tribalism- a sort of “internet xenophobia”, if you will.  You are a mere missionary preaching the gospel of civil discourse and the lynch mob stands with torches and pitchforks waiting for you at the county line.


Here is the thing.  Those people you were trying to help?  They are having a conversation.  That conversation has a topic.  That topic is important to them.  It is important enough that they are wearing their gut reactions on their sleeves.  So when you come waltzing in, and you say “Guys- hey, guys- Y U mad, bro?” they are more than likely going to turn on you.

Why, you ask?  You’re only trying to let cooler heads prevail, right? I totally get what you’re feeling right now.  I understand.

What you need to understand is that the reason they are mad is right in front of you.  It’s right there- in the post you are reading.  Heck, it may even be summed up pretty succinctly in the title of the post.  Yet here you are, telling these people that you don’t understand what could possibly have them up in arms.  This, to them, is the problem.

Imagine you find yourself in a hotel burning to the ground.  You see a number of people frantically yelling to wake the guests up- pounding on doors and shouting.  You have that mental image yet? Don’t worry, I’ll wait…..

We good now?  Alright, so now imagine- for the sake of argument- you see this one man who seems perfectly calm.  He is standing at the Continental breakfast table pouring himself a coffee and unwrapping a stale shrink-wrapped danish.  Instead of showing any concern at all for the crisis going on around him, he grabs the occasional screaming patron and notes to them how the curtains don’t match the sofa in the lobby.  WTF, right?

You are being that guy.  You are walking into a that burning hotel to talk about interior decorating.

Read more.

“An open letter to the tone troll”
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38 thoughts on ““An open letter to the tone troll”

  1. 2

    You know, I totally get what this letter is trying to say but does he really need to be such a jerk about it? Of course it would be ridiculous to criticize the decor in a burning building but that analogy makes it sound like people who are concerned with others using mean words are exactly as irrational and that hurts my feelings. Also, that thing about flies and honey.

  2. 3

    George W., this is Jason’s blog and he can write what ever he wants on it. If you find it distasteful don’t read the blog.

    See? Your problem is solved.

    You’re welcome.

  3. 5

    We’re talking about politics? I thought we were talking about annoying jackasses derailing conversations just to say, “You’re all being too mean! I think your emotional reaction is unjustified! What? No, I’m not a woman/LGBT/racial minority, I just don’t understand what the big deal is about all this harassment/bigotry/racism you keep saying you’re experiencing.”
    (I may be exaggerating. Just a bit.)

    And how is this attack hateful? Mocking, surely, but not hateful.

  4. 6

    Lulz. *slow clap*

    On a serious note, my personal opinion is that tone trolling is almost always entirely about politics. It’s a proxy argument for someone basically stating that they don’t want to be made to feel bad for having certain views. This is tightly tied, I think to a common fallacy that states that beliefs and ideas themselves don’t have significant moral relevance, that it’s only direct actions that do.

  5. 7

    Does all the content on this blog have to be a hateful attack against someone who doesn’t share your politics, Jason?

    Even when you re-blog, you still can’t help but push your personal agenda.

    Hateful attack by proxy, anyone?

  6. 9

    #4 @Ouabache
    I hope that last comment wasn’t directed at me! I’m not a Tone Troll- I’ll tell you flat out that the guy who wrote the original post that Jason links to is a real ASSHOLE.

    What kind of Tone Troll would say that?

  7. 10

    Among the Athiest and skeptic community I have found some members exhort a great deal of influence among their peers by their use of humiliation.

  8. 11

    I got news for you…..

    The guy can’t even muster ORIGINAL hateful attacks against people who don’t share his politics! He need to get his hateful crap-spewing lapdogs to do it for him….


  9. 13

    @James Honestly, I think that’s something that’s impossible to avoid, no matter how hard we could potentially try to avoid it. Saying that you believing or doing X is results is wrong and it hurts people is “humiliating” in and of itself.

    Some people want to think it’s all just a game and as such we shouldn’t take it seriously. Personally, I think that attitude is more messed up than any amount of anger.

  10. 14

    Good post, George. Not that I expect it to actually convince many our problematic commenters, because it’s clearly ego that causes them to insert themselves into a discussion and divert it to the all important, omnipresent topic of politeness.

    If someone has found a cure for ego, though, I’m all ears.

  11. 16

    This comment thread reminds me of friends of mine who would shove each other and pretend they were about to fight. Once the surrounding crowd was good and stressed out, they’d start to make out or something in that vain. Good times…

  12. 19

    Seriously though guys,
    I agree that trolling is usually less innocent than my post lets on. I was more or less trying to have some fun with the fact that most tone trolls swear up and down that they are not trying to derail a thread.

    I was thinking of a particular troll at the time (Y U NO NAME NAMES?), but I wanted it to be general enough to link to when future tone trolls play the “Y U mad? I’m just innocently trying to bring some decorum to this place”.

    I was hoping that someone would come into this thread and tone troll my comments, thus creating a perfect circle of “metatrolling”.

  13. 21

    There’s another type of tone troll that wasn’t mentioned in George W.’s excellent post. We’ve all seen the “I’m not going to respond to any of you potty-mouths” troll ignoring arguments against the troll’s position. All too often that translates as “I don’t actually have a response to your arguments but since you used naughty words I’m using that as an excuse for not replying to you.”

  14. jon

    bull. shit.
    civility is CRUCIAL for normal, rational discussion, just look at the things spiraling out of control on FTB lately.

  15. 24

    [email protected]
    See? You intentionally miss what I was trying to get across. Effective communication isn’t just about civility, it’s about clarity. Had you read the post for comprehesion, you would have understood that I’m not against civility, nor that I undervalue it.

    Civility has a place, as I said in the post and you say in your comment, in normal, rational discussion. What I also said is that the things that tone trolls want everyone to discuss dispassionately are being handled without civility because they should not be normal, nor are they rational.

    I won’t have a civil conversation with you about whether DJ had a point about women “regretting their sexual exploits” when they complain about harassment at TAM. That opinion shouldn’t be normalized. It isn’t rational. Every time we give people the impression that this idea is worth considering, we help to normalize it.

    What all the people who see FtB “spiraling out of control” don’t get is that nothing is out of control. I’m not saying there are no mistakes, but generally it is just as it should be. When Jason, Ophelia, Stephanie, and others highlight something that is bloody irrational and regrettably normal, well, we should be avoiding giving those ideas a civil and rational airing.

    In those cases what is called for is clarity. We need to be clear that it’s not okay. We need to be clear that people are mad. We need to be clear that those attitudes deserve our disdain.

    When the topic is irrational it is rational to be uncivil. Get it?

  16. GMM

    Was that in response to the “MISOGYNIST!!!!” blog post? Can I quote the entire thing on thunderfoot’s blog? I have a feeling it would be over his head though, so never mind.

  17. 26

    Epic thread is epic. I rarely read other blogs just from links like this, but seeing the meta-trolling in this thread, I’m adding George’s blog to my list.

    Well played sir. *golf clap*

  18. 27

    GMM: I doubt that’s who George had in mind, considering he told me he started work on the post like a week before it went up. But it surely does apply, doesn’t it?

  19. 28

    I liked the post right up until the last false analogy with the person who commented on the interior decor in the burning building. A better example would have been to describe a man who kept his composure and calmly led the people out of the burning building to safety.
    I have not commented here before so I expect you will label me a troll of some sort. How do you suggest that a person enter into the discussion if they are not one of the regular commenters?

  20. 29

    I don’t believe that anyone here is going to call you a troll. You addressed the post (though I wouldn’t call that analogy “the last” since it is followed by over 1000 words if you click that blue text below it that says “Read more”) and have a difference of opinion, that’s all.

    What I was trying to convey was that a post has a subject, let’s say for the sake of argument it is an influential atheist saying that women who compalin of harassment are merely regretting past sexual exploits (not that this actually happens, but imagine it did). Now people in this post are mad, and rightly so, because there really is no good excuse for this kind of insensitive and patently false statement. Now imagine a commenter comes in, let’s say he doesn’t address the topic at all. Let’s imagine that he just says “Don’t call that guy names, why are you so angry and mean?” This is where the analogy comes from. It comes from people being reasonably upset about a serious issue, and someone coming in and talking about something that entirely disregards their reason for concern.
    On the other hand, you believe that saying “Y U mad, bro?” is helpful to the conversation and will help solve the issue. You believe that if everyone just listened to that “tone troll” and stopped being angry and forceful, that influential atheist would say “Gee, now that everyone is so calm I totally see my mistake.” That’s your right to believe that, but I think it would more likely result in the whole comment blowing over and people coming to believe that his comment is a valid interpretation of the facts.
    See, in your analogy the guy calmly acknowledged the fire. That isn’t what tone trolls do. They don’t acknowledge the cause of the anger. Can you give specific examples of times where someone has been called a troll on FtB when they acknowledged the root cause of the anger and concern?

  21. 30

    Sorry, I meant the last visible paragraph. I stand corrected.
    I see your point about acknowledging the cause of concern, but I do think that there are lots of examples (I do not have the time to hunt through all past comments to find examples)where people have done that, but because they disagree with the poster, even politely, they are called trolls, or concerned tone trolls. I don’t think that a person has to be angry and use profanities to make a point. Perhaps that is one reason why there have been so many comments on the harassment debate. People react negatively when they are abused verbally, and they get more defensive instead of trying to empathise and see the other person’s point of view. While I agree that might cause the comment to blow over, as you said, it does not necessarily mean that concerns would be disregarded. Don’t you tend to tune people out if they are loud and obnoxious? I do.

  22. 31

    Okay, I can envision a few other scenarios where the tone troll would still be a tone troll and acknowledge the fire.

    1: Guy stops or slows people who are trying to escape the building, and demands that they all stop shouting so loudly about the fire, because it hurts guy’s danish digestion

    2: Guy stops or slows people and demands that they all return calmly to their rooms and phone one another to come to a decision as to what to do about the fire

    3: Guy again stops or slows people and refuses to believe there’s a fire until someone stops and CALMLY shows him evidence of that fire, because all these people running and screaming with their hair on fire are being too emotional, and they were women anyway so they were probably lying

    The important thing is that this person cares more about civility — or in some cases a mere patina of civility — than swift action. And yes, pointing out how evil certain distractions (like the curtains) are and ignoring the fire itself is definitely a form of tone trolling.

  23. 32

    Could this also be Clare providing a meta-example of another variety of tone troll, the “use this word instead of that word even though the meaning is really clear” troll?

  24. 33


    I see your point about acknowledging the cause of concern, but I do think that there are lots of examples (I do not have the time to hunt through all past comments to find examples)where people have done that, but because they disagree with the poster, even politely, they are called trolls, or concerned tone trolls.

    I’m sure you could find an example of someone abusing the term “troll”. You could have sited several examples and I would not have been surprised. I personally have never seen a FtB blogger do it, but I’m willing to concede that this is anecdotal as opposed to researched. “Troll” is unfortunately becoming shorthand for “person who disagrees with me” in some circles, and that is why it is important to reiterate what one is.
    My post addresses real trolls, and for you to come into the conversation trying to move the definition to accommodate a conversation about how in some cases people abuse the term is indicating to me that a)You didn’t read the post for comprehension and b)You read the post with a predetermined attitude that I could only possibly be speaking about non-troll dissenters.
    If you want to talk about the specific troll in question, or another specific instance- please feel free. As it stands your comment comes across as “I have seen people call someone a ‘troll’ for mere disagreement- therefor there is no such thing as a genuine troll”
    I don’t think that’s what you meant to say, but that is how flippant disregard for the meat of the post comes across.

  25. 34

    Gee, Jason,
    I told Clare (s)he wasn’t going to be called a troll. Thanks for throwing me under the bus. 😉
    As I said over in Stephanie’s troll post- I think there are behaviors that honest people do that are common to trolls as well. This might be an example of “trollish” behavior, but it might be an honest cognitive error as opposed to something intentionally malicious.
    Trolls become trolls through a consistent pattern of behavior, not an error of judgement.

    To err is human, to forge on makes a troll….

  26. 35

    @George W”As it stands your comment comes across as “I have seen people call someone a ‘troll’ for mere disagreement- therefor there is no such thing as a genuine troll”
    I don’t think that’s what you meant to say, but that is how flippant disregard for the meat of the post comes across.”

    I definitely did not say, or even imply,that there was no such thing as a genuine troll. You are making a big assumption.

  27. 36

    How do you suggest that a person enter into the discussion if they are not one of the regular commenters?

    Pay attention to the subject. Read the original post and the links therein. Read the comments that have come before.

    Optionally: Add comments of one’s own that engage with the topic at the hand and the subject of the previous comments in one’s own voice.

    Or if you like: Be the change you want to see in others. Show, not tell.

  28. 37

    So let me get this straight; in a community that claims to value rationality, people who point out when the conversion is getting overly emotionally focused are trolling?

    This seems like a paper-thin excuse for the childish name calling / constant ad hominem attacks that permeate this site. Yes, one can make a coherent argument with every phrase ending with “you fucking moron”, but it clearly makes it needlessly more difficult to have a thoughtful & objective discussion. Yes, it’s fun to be witty but it seems like a bad idea to encourage tearing each other down.

    (btw, I’m fully aware that I’ve written enough here that in the unlikely event that someone responds they’ll have ample material to try to nit-pick the minutia of what I’ve said thereby deflecting without actually addressing my argument.)

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