Does civilized discourse entail tone policing?

(Dan Fabulich) #1

The company that runs Discourse is “Civilized Discourse Construction Kit, Inc.” One of the primary roles of Discourse is to help promote civilized discourse, especially as expressed in the default FAQ.

This is a Civilized Place for Public Discussion

Please treat this discussion forum with the same respect you would a public park. We, too, are a shared community resource — a place to share skills, knowledge and interests through ongoing conversation.

These are not hard and fast rules, merely aids to the human judgment of our community. Use these guidelines to keep this a clean, well-lighted place for civilized public discourse.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the concept of “tone policing,” as expressed, for example, in this comic.

If you Google for tone policing you’ll find a lot more discussions of this.

Here’s another one, in text. Do or die — This is a post about tone policing

Tone policing assumes that the oppressive act is not an act of aggression, when it very much is. The person who was oppressed by the action, suddenly is no longer a victim, but is “victimizing” the other person by calling them out. Now, I’m not saying it’s okay to be abusive, or oppressive in response to a person who fucks up. But anger is valid. Anger is valid, anger is important, anger brings social change, anger makes people listen, anger is threatening, and anger is passion. Anger is NOT counterproductive; being “nice” is counterproductive. Nobody was ever given rights by politely asking for them. Politeness is nothing but a set of behavioral expectations that is enforced upon marginalized people.

(emphasis theirs)

From time to time, folks on our Discourse forum have expressed pretty heated anger about discrimination, oppression, or other unfair BS they’ve experienced. Sometimes, as angry people tend to do, they hurt other people’s feelings by expressing their anger. (And in at least some of those cases, the angry folks have later expressed regret about their choice of words, though certainly not in all cases.)

What’s weird about the role of the moderator is that arguably the whole purpose of having a moderator is to moderate the tone of the discussion, even to “police” the tone. Online, some people are uncivil for no reason other than to be hurtful, and the role of a moderator and civility guidelines is to promote healthy discussion.

I optimistically think that moderators are usually more helpful than harmful. Moderators sometimes have to delete/ban some disgusting stuff that I feel no qualms about deleting.

But sometimes, I worry, that by requiring that the tone of our conversations remain civil, we’re interfering with the expression of righteous anger which should hurt our feelings.

Please treat this discussion forum with the same respect you would a public park.

We do a lot of things in a public park; not just healthy conversation, but protests, even angry ones. A public park is often the canonical example of where we have to support the free-speech rights of people to make political remarks that sting.

I’m still working through what I think about all this. I feel like all of these ideas are coherent:

  1. Civility rules are inherently harmful, because they forbid marginalized people from productively expressing their anger.
  2. Tone policing is what we do; if this prevents marginalized people from expressing righteous anger, that’s not our problem. They can go find another space (an actual public park) to protest angrily.
  3. The role of the civility rules is to forbid assholes, but to allow righteous anger; we’ll have to use our best judgment to distinguish them. (Perhaps the guidelines should say more to clarify this, and help distinguish the cases?)

What do y’all think?

P.S. I recognize that this thread runs some risk of becoming a political discussion in itself. For example, some of the articles I’ve linked are from feminist resources, and you might have opinions you’d like to share about feminism, content warnings, or political correctness. That’s not what this thread is about. There are uncivil marginalized voices across the political spectrum, left and right. Maybe you think some of those voices should be marginalized, but this is not the thread to discuss which of those are which!

(Jeff Atwood) #2

I believe a claim that someone is tone policing is only valid when the substance of the message is ignored due to superficial claims about the way the message was delivered.

So when someone says:

It’s bullshit that women get hassled online so much.

And the reply is

How dare you say bullshit! What kind of person uses language like that! My goodness gracious, fetch me my fainting couch as quickly as possible, I do believe seeing these terrible words on my screen has made me light-headed!

That is ignoring the content of the message, in favor of commenting on superficial aspects of the message, and derailing the discussion into meta (discussion about the discussion) in the process. I consider that a valid use of the tone policing argument. But the tone can be adjusted, without falling into that trap:

Yes, there’s a lot of data to support the claim that women get hassled online a lot more than men, and it is unfortunate. Also, be aware that we don’t allow profanity per our site guidelines, so I’ve edited out that particular part of your message. Please continue the discussion.

This does not mean that stuff you would normally not allow – cruelty, profanity, personal attacks, and so on – should suddenly be allowed if they are presented under the banner of a righteous moral cause. In other words, these two statements are not equivalent:

Hi Bob, I’d agree with your point A, but your point B contradicts C and D, which I outlined above. How can you reconcile the two?


Hey Bob-a-job, you f**kstick, can you even F**KING READ you idiot? Did your mum drop you on your head as a f**ing baby? You’ve totally ignored points C and D. Your whole argument is f**ing WORTHLESS. Srsly. People like you are the reason the world is so F**ED UP.

TL;DR a tone policing claim is only valid, in my opinion, when someone is ignoring the content of a message in favor of focusing on relatively superficial aspects of how the message is delivered. However, this does not mean that delivery is always superficial, that you are free to deliver a morally righteous message in any form you like, no matter how cruel.

How you say something is just as important as what you say. Be angry, that’s fine, just don’t let your anger drive you to lash out and hurt other people.

(Daniel Tobias) #3

The subject is inherently political, since everybody who brings it up implies all sorts of beliefs of a poltiical nature, such as that people can be classified by identity group, and that some of these groups are inherently more marginalized than others, and that there needs to be a double standard for treating them; rude things said by marginalized people shouldn’t be objected to because that is “tone policing”, while rude things said by non-marginalized people can be objected to as “microaggressions”. This demands that moderators not be impartial referees, but that they take sides in political battles.

(Jeff Atwood) #4

I think it is fair to be upset when people are legitimately (intentionally?) ignoring your message, in favor of talking about superficial aspects of how your message was delivered.

At no point should overt cruelty to other people ever be allowed, though. It is possible to be angry without taking out your anger on other people. By all means, be angry – but channel that anger into constructive actions, not destructive ones.

(Dan Fabulich) #5

I think the core question comes down to how anger is expressed, even when not profane or technically rude.

Consider these examples:

  1. “I hate it when X people do Y to me”
  2. “In your last post, you did Y, which denigrates me. X people do that to me all the time”
  3. “X people are terrible because they do Y over and over again and show no sign of stopping”

(Dan Fabulich) #6

I think the concept of “tone policing” applies to all sides of the political spectrum. There are folks who would self-identify as “marginalized” on the extreme left and extreme right, and both sides get “tone policed” for sounding “too angry” when making their arguments. (But perhaps they’re angry for a very good reason!)

The concept of “tone policing” doesn’t require us to adopt a double-standard between “marginalized” and “less/non-marginalized” people.

Despite that, even “impartial referees” may be taking sides in favor of the status quo and against extreme viewpoints. That can play out against marginalized groups on either side. (And that might be good! Extremism can be really bad! Especially when I disagree with it! :wink: )

(Jeff Atwood) #7

I disagree, I think the very crux of tone policing is that the discussion is being (again, sometimes intentionally?) shunted into a meta-discussion rather than the actual topic. So ask yourself this – how “meta” (discussion about the discussion) is the discussion getting, and why? Is it interfering with the actual issues people want to discuss?

Also, should “extra political” discussions even exist on your site? Not all discussions need to be on all sites. The Internet is a big, wide place with lots of room for different sites with different goals.

(Nathaniel Ford) #8

I’d like to say that, in general, I agree that a post can be angry without being cruel to others, and that that seems (both superficially and concretely in a number of well-known examples) to be a good standard to attempt to achieve.

But I think the original poster is speaking to a strange catch-22; specifically that if a dominant group protects it’s privilege and the status-quo from being questioned by asserting that some standard of behavior is required, and independent of that protectionist motivation that same standard is required for separate reasons, does it support and defend the unjust protection of the dominant group’s privilege? Thus, when the issue of questioning that privilege comes up, adhering to the particular standard of behavior that defends that privilege can be counter-productive.

I think this can become particularly problematic when words or phrases are imbued with meaning beyond their initial or immediate semantics. For instance, each of these can be problematic:

“Bless your heart, you contradict point C with point D.”

This phrasing, while ‘civil’, is also subtly condescending. It is difficult to address the condescension. If you flag or remove it, it feels like ‘weak reasoning’ for doing so: the author, after all, was just using flowery language. (Indeed, some people say these sorts of things without being aware it’s condescending.) If you address it directly you move into the realm of attacking the condescending author, which immediately puts you in a disadvantageous position.

“Point C, a SJW talking point, is contradicted by B.” (Labeling in a way to associate with people who are somehow lesser)

Here, C may very well be a SJW talking point, and so this is a fact. But it’s being labelled in a way that associates the point-maker with something upon which scorn is (however inappropriately) heaped. Again, responses to this feel limited, because we’re talking ‘civilly’ about facts.

This last one might be responded to in a couple of ways, only a hairs breadth apart:

“By labelling point C a SJW talking point, you’re sinking this discussion to a deplorable level.”
“By labelling point C a SJW talking point, you’re being deplorable.”

Most people are not going to parse a difference between the two, and any moderation of this becomes dodgy at best. But both are (in my opinion) valid and angry responses. The reason I suggest they are valid is because they do not seek to be cruel, even if they do seek to ‘harm’ (in the most abstract of senses) the subject’s self-view. They are calling out shady behavior, and if that behavior is to be responded to at all, it will involve some sort of response to the earlier, ‘defensible’, baiting. Aggravatingly, this is also ‘tone policing’, because it is only addressing items adjacent to the message substance.

All of this is to say that extreme cases of profanity are easy to adjudicate. The far more insidious - and far more important to marginalized groups - issue is when language is used that aggresses at the margins: just inside the line such that it is defensible under whatever standard is set, but that makes it very hard for the other side to respond without crossing the standard’s line.

And in those cases, is appropriate to police the tone of the side bellying up to the border? Or is it appropriate to let others respond more directly to that tone, even if it weakens the ‘public park’ policy? While these questions only apply to some subset of possible discussions, many of which you can outright disallow by being particular what you will discuss, they still come up: I’ve seen it happen, for instance, in technical discussions where one party moves goal posts and another can’t really call them out without calling out that person’s specific, repeated actions.

(Jeff Atwood) #9

Excellent points and specific examples.

I think the more a site exists to have these kinds of contentious, complex dicussions – race, gender, gun control, cars vs. bicycles, whatever you can think of tends to be a flash point online – the more sophisticated their ruleset needs to be to handle it.

It’s often easier to say “look, we only discuss X here, if you want to discuss Y in depth, please do that elsewhere” if your site can have a narrow enough focus.

(As for your specific examples, I’d say “SJW” is immediately a pejorative label that should be disavowed as a matter of policy, and “bless your heart” is clearly condescending… but mostly not necessary to the discussion so it shouldn’t have been included. Stick to the already-quite-complex discussion without throwing in a bunch of extra language that can be “interpreted” differently. Stick to the facts, plain and simply as you can.)

(Daniel Tobias) #10

…and, on this particular forum, with “meta” in its subdomain name, it’s non-meta discussions that are off-topic!

(Daniel Tobias) #11

But if “SJW” is to be disavowed as a “pejorative label”, would the same be done for labels like “racist”, “sexist”, “homophobic”, “Islamophobic”, etc., which, although they do have useful meanings, also get frequently used as pejorative labels to fasten on people?


I think that comes down to precisely whether you’re referring to a person or to behaviour when you use the word “racist” (or any of the other terms) though.

(Dan Fabulich) #13

In my experience, the “racist person vs. racist behavior” distinction is not enough to prevent flame wars.

On our forum, we have a policy against publicly arguing about civility which I recommend that every Discourse forum adopt:

Don’t argue about civility on public channels. Don’t defend yourself, don’t defend others, and don’t pile on to someone who made a mistake. If you see a problem, flag it; don’t reply.

But this then puts the onus on the moderators to engage with individual posters. They (we) can then discuss the problem with the poster over PM, where, if the flames get strong, at least the fire is contained. In those conversations we usually try to grant the benefit of the doubt (unconscious bias vs. conscious chauvinism/supremecism).

(Dan Fabulich) #14

Is anybody aware of forums (Discourse or otherwise) that do a particularly good job with welcoming and discussing hot-button issues?


Yup, I absolutely agree.

(Jeff Atwood) #16

Sort of, the idea is that these discussions would happen in the “Site Feedback” category, which we used to call Meta. No need to disallow it completely, simply moving them out of the flow of regular discussions is enough.

(Nathaniel Ford) #17

… although (labels) do have useful meanings, (they) also get frequently used as pejorative labels to fasten on people?

Please note that in my usage of SJW, it was to attach a pejorative to an idea, not a person, thereby marking the idea (and only indirectly any person who supports said idea) as low-status. I think there is an important distinction here, because it is not culturally acceptable to, say, call someone a racist, but it is ‘better’ to call a post as promulgating a racist viewpoint. But that treads very much into the realm of ‘tone policing’ that the OP is speaking of.

Stick to the facts, plain and simply as you can.

I think that, ultimately, good discussion comes down to this - but that good rhetoric comes down to saying more while still doing this. It is very difficult to have a discussion without rhetoric. For instance:

(racist|islamaphobe|etc.) get frequently used as pejorative labels to fasten on people?

The way this is phrased makes it clear the author (2) believes that this is true, that these labels are ‘frequently’ attached to people in discussions - without actually having any support for that claim. Thus, the idea that people are unfairly labelled these things is asserted, even in a discussion that is only tangentially related to the fact or non-fact of people being labeled racists (1) , and the reader is asked to take it as implicit fact. Yet the discussion may not be centrally about that question, and so what constitutes appropriate support must be set down by the community or else these assertions are never handled. Certainly, I disagree that - in the particular bubble of information in which I exist - that people who are not racist are labelled racist. In fact, I can’t even think of an instance in which anyone was labelled a racist directly. Which, in turn brings us to:

I think the more a site exists to have these kinds of contentious, complex discussions … the more sophisticated their ruleset needs to be to handle it.

This is, of course, correct, but it becomes increasingly (exponentially?) hard to pin down the more contentious the community. And in any such situation (as the OP has asked) we must consider whether there is a better general rule.

(1) Or other traditionally anti-progressive notions. Note that every example here falls in the realm of ‘things conservative types are sometimes believed to be’, rather pejoratives that exist across the political spectrum. In this way a particular point of view is promulgated without making it the center of discussion, and thereby reinforcing that it is correct without having to have it challenged.

(2) For the record, I don’t believe that the author had any particular motive with this, nor do I actually believe he or she to hold a particular viewpoint, but it is precisely this sort of language usage and rhetoric that treads close to a very grey area where baiting-type behavior exists. Just as I only used ‘SJW’ in my original post, being able to distinguish particular characteristics of examples cited can lead to the same sort of saying-without-saying. Yet should either of these posts be flagged for that reason? (I would say no, but only at the risk of not solving this conundrum.)

(Simon Cossar) #18

One thing a forum could try for dealing with ‘hot button’ issues would be to provide a space where people could describe their experiences and be listened to. For it to be effective there would need to be an indication that the listeners were taking in what they heard. The same forum could also have a category for more rule-based discussions, where, for example personal attacks and straw-man arguments would not be tolerated. Maybe doing something like this could help lift the tone without directly policing it.

(Rob Nicholson) #19

As somebody who set-up and now moderates a very successful Facebook based community forum (group), all I will say is this is a very tricky subject. Sometimes the community will play nice for months and then, for no obvious reason, a series of posts are made that flare up. The four moderators usually have a chat via private message about what to do with the thread. Sometimes we let it run because some subjects are worthy of discussion and a heated discussion often indicates very clearly to the local town council where the hot spots are - usually parking or dog poo :wink: Sometimes we let people have their say and lock the post. Sometimes the post is deleted esp. if it starts becoming very personal.

We ask that everyone is civil but that doesn’t mean don’t get emotional or heated.

For every bad threads we have many more good threads where the community rallies together to support somebody or a group.

UPDATE: Interestingly I was going to post a link to a thread that blew up today that was about religion but it’s gone so the original poster must have deleted it. Self moderation is always easier!

(Rob Nicholson) #20

Is this an example of where tone policing was used to shutdown a heated debate on a very common topic in the Discourse world?

Yes it wandered off a technical discussion into a grievance but to shut it down? Should have been split off.