Social power, inequality and the 'tone of voice' argument

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Gloria Filax, Athabasca University
Guest Contributor

One of my first realizations that in some situations what I had to say was less important than how I was perceived to have said it occurred in grade two. I had asked my teacher to let us practice our numbers at our desk instead of at the board because, I offered, we could practice without being watched by our friends.  She gave me a withering look and said, “I don’t like your tone of voice, young lady.”

I knew not to say, “But what does my tone of voice have to do with wanting to practice at my desk instead in front of my friends?”

As a young adult when I presented family and friends information about women’s inequality, I was often told that I could be more convincing if I would just ‘tone it down’ or as someone said to me: ‘You know, you’ll catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.’ When I came out as a lesbian in my late thirties and encountered and objected to homophobia, I was informed that I would be more acceptable if I wasn’t so strident and disrespectful in the way I talked to people.

While directed at me as an individual each of these dismissals of my position was possible because I was a member of a group who exercised less social power – a child in relation to an adult, student in relation to teachers, woman in a male dominant culture, and lesbian in a heteronormative culture. Those who argue against inequality from a position of asymmetrical social power are often dismissed with pejoratives – ‘what a bitch,’ ‘she is so uppity,’ ‘how perverted.’

These experiences have made me sensitive to claims that tone of an argument often is as important to the presentation and receipt of an argument as the content of an argument. Rhetoricians, communication theorists, therapists and pedagogues, who advise that how you say something affects what you say, support this position. Speakers are advised to pay attention to the pace at which they speak and the pitch and projection of their voices. It is thought that the pace at which one speaks, for example, can convey different emotions; speaking slowly can express conviction or anger; speaking more quickly is thought to convey excitement. A fourth feature of paying attention to how one says something is described as ‘negative tone of voice,’ which, it is argued, can turn a listener away from what you have to say or write. Here, I am interested in the appeal to tone of voice by those who wish to avoid uncomfortable content of an argument or, as I argue, those who are not willing to accept critical content from speakers of a certain kind.

It is not that I think that the tone of an argument is irrelevant in all circumstances. By using personal stories in this essay, for example, the tone is less formal than if I had cited scholarly assessments of experiences of people who have been advised to adjust their tone. Appeal to the tone argument is, however, irrelevant and harmful when what counts as a ‘negative tone’ is assumed to have no referents. According to the tone argument, negativity is just negativity regardless of the social position of who speaks or writes and who listens or reads. The claim that how one says or writes something is as important as or more important than what is communicated can be captured by a reworking of Marshall McLuhan’s aphorism: the medium is the message. For those who refer to the tone of an argument to rebut another’s claim, the way in which the message is carried – the tone – is the message. And that message is that the speaker or writer is impolite, angry, or just not nice enough and hence her or his words are not worthy of being countenanced.

Focusing on the tone rather than on the content of an argument is a logical fallacy, and like ad hominem arguments (attack on the person) and red herring arguments (introducing a point that draws attention away from the central issue), the tone argument is used to derail and silence the speaker of unpopular content. By charging someone with using an inappropriate tone, those invoking the tone argument cast themselves as protectors of polite debate, implying that they would pay attention to what is communicated if it was presented in a certain way rather than another, for example, if the argument were presented more calmly and without much anger. There are times, however, when an angry, impatient, or sarcastic tone is called for because to respond impassively, as if what has been said or done doesn’t matter, condones what is found to be objectionable.

Those who insist on the ‘right’ tone could be unaware that appealing to the tone argument is a fallacy, that tone is irrelevant to the point of an argument, or they may use the tone argument as a deliberate tactic to disrupt the conversation and put the ‘accused’ in a defensive position. They ignore or they use strategically the fact that only those who exercise more power in a relationship can insist that someone use a tone acceptable to the listener or reader. For example, a First Nations student in a mainstream seminar discussing the colonization of Canada has less likelihood of being effective when she requests that her classmates use a tone that is respectful of her ancestry than are her classmates who demand that she be polite when she talks of racism experienced by First Nations people in Canada.  Or a Black woman discussing her experiences of racism within Canadian universities has less likelihood of being heard because too often white colleagues deny how they too are implicated in racist structures and instead refocus their attention towards the ‘tone’ of a statement.

The insistence that an argument will only be taken up if the argument is presented politely comes from a position of social power and privilege in which the person who exercises more social power can dictate the terms of an exchange. It was a long time ago that I presented my argument to my teacher about working at my desk rather than the blackboard but I am almost certain that I did this carefully, knowing that she would react to the least bit of emotion in my voice. I came to the conclusion, then, and I have had this reinforced since that a message coming from certain people –  people of color, Aboriginal peoples, disabled people, women, children, poor people, sexual minorities - implies an unacceptable tone, whether this tone is present or not.

In other words, for those who invoke the tone argument, it is not that the medium (the tone) is the message; it is that the message is the medium – that is, this unwelcome message delivered by someone perceived to be a social unequal is necessarily disrespectful, impolite, or angry, irrespective of how it is presented. I learned as a seven year old that it was irrelevant whether I was polite in my request of my teacher. The issue was that I had dared to speak at all and that what I had to say was impolite merely by being said.

Gloria Filax is an associate professor of Equity/Equality Studies and Chair of the Centre for Integrated Studies, Athabasca University.


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