Advocacy & News, Awareness & Unlearning, Social Justice

[Un]Learning: Why We Should Challenge Tone Policing

Be aware of those who say “now is not the time”. Notice who decries “this is not the way”. Remember who wants you to change how you speak of injustice so that it’s more palatable for them to hear. Recognize who discredits your fears because they are not their own. Understand that all of this is just another way to demand your silence.

Time and time again I’ve seen tone policing rear its ugly head to quiet the sharing of trauma and pain, or injustice and oppression. Focusing on the way a message is delivered rather than its content is used to insidiously sidestep what’s really at stake. It decenters issues of social, racial, gender and environmental justice — sometimes deliberately — by those who do not face the same realities and fears as the people they are trying to persuade that action should wait.

Poem by Molly from Transatlantic Notes called There Is Only Now reads: “There is no perfect time to raise our voices. There is only now.”

But action cannot wait.

Even if they’d wish it so, the timeline to create and protect equality, equity and liberation is not in the hands of those who would rather you weren’t so angry, so fearful, so emotional, so passionate — so truthful. There are many different types of privileges that exist in society, and being in a position where you believe you can tell other people how they should respond to their own encounters with injustice or their fears for the future is one of them. It’s also extremely dismissive and offensive. Even if no harm is meant, intent does not negate impact.

We’re living in a very divisive time that is bringing into stark focus the realities of political, institutional and systemic policies, provisions and power that are not beneficial for everyone. Realizing this can be uncomfortable, especially if we ourselves benefit from how our society is structured while others don’t. It’s on us to work through that uneasiness and not tone police the words of those who take the time to raise awareness.

If we’re lucky enough to be in a position to learn about injustice rather than experience it, then we should stand beside any individual or any group that does not have the same protections against it as we do. We must educate ourselves and be a part of meaningful action.

Silence doesn’t raise everyone up, fight for justice or celebrate our diversity — it’s a tool used to stiffle all these things — so now is the time to call out tone policing and help create something better.

Do you step in when someone is tone policing somebody else? Have you caught yourself focusing on how the person is speaking/makes you feel rather than what they’re saying?

Further Reading:

How To Identify Tone Policing in the Workplace — Business Insider

What Is Tone Policing & Why It’s Wrong — Feminism India

What It Means to Center Ourselves in Conversation & How To Practice Decentering Instead — The Good Trade

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12 thoughts on “[Un]Learning: Why We Should Challenge Tone Policing”

  1. I’m actually quite guilty of tone policing, I get distracted by how someone delivers their message rather than the message itself. But I do take some time to really process what they are trying to convey.

    Thanks for this article, this is the 1st time I heard the term tone policing.


  2. I’m sure there will be times when I’m still guilty of it, but I can say for certain I used to be guilty of tone policing a lot. Before I started educating myself on certain issues, I was caught up in the delivery of a message instead of what the message was. I’m going to have to reflect more on how I can address this behaviour when I see it happening. Thanks for sharing this!


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