F*** You! Listen To My Argument!

Update: This post was written a at Skepticon, but I unfortunately had my hard drive crash and only just got my computer back now. So some of this might be a wee bit outdated, but still relevant.

Arguments are a common occurrence in online life. Particularly in a freethought type community (like we have here in atheist land), we tend to disagree with each other quite often. When arguments happen on the internet, people are not always the most civil or kind (I know this is a big shocker). Many times people insult each other, call names, or attack individuals instead of positions. And they’re often told this is a bad thing to do, both for the sake of their argument and persuasiveness, and simply in ethical terms.

“But wait!” Our hypothetical name-callers might yell. “That’s tone-policing! My argument is still valid no matter how I say it! You’re trying to stamp out my freedom of speech!”
Urban Dictionary has a number of definitions of tone policing (it’s definitely the best place to go for any internet terminology), but overall they agree that tone policing is ignoring someone’s argument because of the way they phrase themselves, or criticizing the way someone expresses their argument.

So what’s the answer? Should we pay attention to how people speak, or what they speak? How does it impact others when we use insulting, degrading or offensive terms? I think we all agree that there should be some general conversational rules that keep us all from verbally abusing each other if we want to have any sort of constructive dialogues. But how do we figure out where to draw the line? It’s clearly not ok to throw out racial slurs, but is it ok to call someone a bitch?

During a workshop about being persuasive at Skepticon, James Croft gave the general maxim for tone of “Don’t degrade the other person”. This seems like a great principle at first, because it allows us to still disagree, criticize, call each other out, etc. but it still gives some guidelines for acceptability. The problem is that we may not all agree on what is degrading. Croft specified that it was ok to offend someone, because if you weren’t doing something degrading you shouldn’t care that they were upset over nothing.

But this opens the door for people to justify all sorts of behavior on the grounds that others are too sensitive. Especially in conversations where one participant is in a position of privilege, I have seen all too often that the minority person may speak up and say that something is offensive or degrading or rude, and the person of privilege pays no attention because they feel their behaviors shouldn’t be offensive. For example, many men feel that it’s not degrading to refer to women as “females”. I personally feel that it’s incredibly offensive and degrading. I know a lot of women who would agree with me. Who is in the right in this situation? Should men use this terminology? An additional problem to this, is that often the person using the offensive terminology is in a position of power, so they are de facto right because they can continue to use the terminology.

I think that this should push us to err on the side of caution and it should also push us to listen very carefully when another person says that we have offended them. While simply offending someone is not cause to change your behavior if you are not doing anything truly degrading, when someone tells you that your language has offended them, there’s a high possibility that they feel degraded. And because you are not the person on the receiving end of the comment, you cannot fully judge whether it is degrading or not. Particularly when the person is in a different demographic than yourself, they might be degraded by different terms than you are.

Overall, James Croft is right and we should strive to respect others but still have a base to critique them. However as many of us come from very privilege positions, I think an important caveat to that is that we need to listen very carefully when someone else says that we have offended or degraded them and give their opinions on the matter more weight than our own. Erring on the side of caution can only make our dialogue more civil, and we can still criticize and call out those whose behaviors we disagree with without resorting to anything that should make another person feel attacked personally.

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Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at www.taikonenfea.wordpress.com

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