Among all the beleaguered and assaulted forms of policing in our present evil world, I would like to stand up today in defense of one of the most obscure forms of policing, and that is tone policing. As anyone who is a regular reader of this particular blog is aware of, the issue of communication and its study is of vital personal importance, not least because it is a skill that I have struggled so mightily with over the course of my existence on this planet. From time to time I am reminded that tone policing is viewed by some people as a negative rather than as a positive, and as a vigorous advocate of tone policing I would like to speak up in defense of something that is not given nearly enough respect by people. I would say in general that tone policing is something that everyone practices to some extent but not something that everyone appreciates on a consistent level, and I think it deserves to be respected in general as it, like all policing, is meant to help us live in a way that is more conducive to the respect of other people and their interests and well-being. Tone policing is in favor of a just law and order and as such I am in its corner even if few other people are willing to speak up in its behalf.
Last week, rapper J. Cole attracted some degree of hostility from some people because of his attempt to tone police someone whose views he had a lot of respect for but whose attitude he found reason to question, some socially conscious black feminist I did not know about nor whose music or approach I care about in any way. The fight itself did not interest me, but the reflexive hostility of many people to his efforts at tone policing did because they were on point. When we engage in communication with other people, we have to ask ourselves what we are trying to do with our efforts at communication. Are we sending out a signal simply to release internal pressure and to speak our own views and our own perspective without any intent to persuade or change other people? If our interests are strictly internal and personal in letting off steam so that we can live generally peaceful lives in the face of the world’s evils and injustices, then by all means tone policing is useless since we are not speaking to other people at all but merely letting out our own primal scream of frustration or anger. That is not usually the case, though. Generally, and often very intentionally, people communicate in order to provoke or encourage some sort of change in the behavior or thinking of someone else with whom the speaker or writer has a problem with. In such a case, tone policing is of vital importance, because our tone and attitude in communication will matter greatly in how that message is received. To the extent that we are better at self-policing our tone, we have less need of others to police our tone for us. The problem is that our contemporary era has privileged our own perspectives to the extent that we speak from ourselves to other people who think and feel differently with little interest in moderating our own tone to suit the sensibilities of those we are ostensibly trying to help and coercively trying to influence and change. This leads to fairly inevitable hostile conflicts between people because of their lack of interest in respecting the perspective of the people that they are trying to change.
If there is any lesson that would-be reformers and revolutionaries should have is that human beings are resistant to change. And that is as true of the reformers and revolutionaries themselves when they are confronted by other people who desire different reforms and different revolutions. No one likes to be told to change, and no one appreciates other people trying to boss them around. No one appreciates those who disrupt the status quo in their lives. This resentment and hostility is universal, and ignoring it will only lead to problems and disagreements and conflict. When people engage in tone policing, what they are doing is sending a signal to the original communicator that the efforts at inspiring and provoking change are not successful because that communication does not come from a point of view of respect and concern for the interests and well-being of the recipient. This is important information to have. We may feel that we are communicating to others respect that they do not feel coming from us, and their resistance to the change we wish will increase to the extent that our disrespect continues or increases. When we receive information that we are not being viewed as respectful to the people we are communicating with, we are then presented with an opportunity to build trust and rapport with them by changing our tone and communication in order that we demonstrate respect and concern for the person or people we are communicating with, understand their resistance to change and show commitment to their well-being and self-regard as human beings. To the extent that we do not do this, their hostility against our desires to force them to act according to our will is fully justified.
We all reflexively respond as tone police when other people tell us that we need to change. When people tell us that we need to repent of some obvious sin in our own life, we look for ways to point out those who desire us to change as hypocrites who do not live up to their own standards. Most of the time we can find such hypocrisy because it is endemic to being human of any belief system. When such double standards are found, and they will inevitably be found, the conversation takes a new form as being a hostile dialogue between two imperfect sinners whose hackles have been mutually raised against the reminder of our own sinful and unjust natures. What is our response to being put on the defensive as not only sinned against but also a sinner? Is it to justify ourselves and to pour on our hostility against others, and to abuse such power as we possess to crush and silence those who have reminded us of the darker corners of our own selves that we seek in general to disguise from public scrutiny? Or do we see it as an opportunity to appeal to a common external standard that exists beyond the two participants or sides and that applies to each of them equally, calling upon all of them to do better and be better and to be transformed from fallen and corrupt human beings rebellious against and hostile to God’s ways to beings transformed into the image and likeness and character of God Himself, in whom there is no shadow of turning, no deception, no sin of any kind? All too often we choose to fight the tone policing and show ourselves as evildoers who do not love and respect others rather than to submit to the just and divine law and order it could provide if we were willing to listen to it.