There’s been something wriggling in my mind about the tone argument, and why I think it is (a) a perfectly valid concept that is (b) often misused. The other day, while looking up a link on logical fallacies, it finally occurred to me just what it was I was trying to say.
The tone argument is a logical fallacy. Now, stop a second: I don’t mean that it’s a logical fallacy to tell someone they have invoked the tone argument. I mean that “I would listen to you if your tone was better” belongs on the list of logical fallacies with slippery slope, post hoc ergo propter hoc, and all those other things you learned in your philosophy and/or writing class. And just like those logical fallacies, it is both valid as a criticism of someone’s rhetoric and yet often overly simplistically and uncritically applied.
If you’ve never been introduced to logical fallacies, you can pretty much just Google it and get a good explanation. They’re exactly what it says on the tin: common logical mistakes. To use one of my favorites, there’s post hoc ergo propter hoc, “after this, therefore because of this,” which is basically using correlation to argue causation. See my belief that the Reds lose every time I actually watch a game. Another common one is the slippery slope, which basically claims that this step from the top of the hill will inevitably lead aaaallll the way down to the disastrous/ridiculous bottom. If we legalize same-sex marriage, people will want to marry their dogs.
Now, here’s where things get tricky. Some slopes are slippery. What makes a slippery slope argument a fallacy is that there is no logical reason to assume that Step A will lead to Place B, that there is a substantive difference between the two metaphorical locations. It’s not actually that big of a logical disconnect to argue that legalizing same-sex marriage would clear the way for poly marriages (to which the wise retort would be, “okay, prove to me that that’s a bad thing”). Many things in many legal systems are based on precedent, so arguing that one thing may lead to another is not inherently bad logic. The key is context and connection.
And herein lies the problem with logical fallacies, and why I often teach them with a great deal of caution: like many formulas, they are seductive in their concreteness, so seductive that people throw them around indiscriminately and forget that, like all rhetorical concepts, they are contextual. An ad hominem attack is an irrelevant attack on a speaker/writer’s character. Pointing out that a speaker who is arguing from personal experience has lied in the past about her/his background is not a logical fallacy. (Note: example is entirely hypothetical, so please don’t try to suss who I’m talking about😉. Pointing out that a writer/speaker who is arguing from personal experience in a discussion of driving laws once posted nude pics, not so relevant.
Which brings me to the tone argument.
I have been on the receiving end of comments that basically said, “you know, I can’t argue with anything you said, but I’m still offended by the way you said it.” And given that the arguments in question were usually, if anything, under emotional and aggressive for the topic (if anything, I often hedge too much), I obviously believe in the tone argument as a logical fallacy. I believe that some people attack an argument’s tone when they have nothing else to dispute but don’t want to concede, that such attacks are often insincere and derailing and, well, false. However, there are two contextual keys to the validity of calling something a tone argument:
- Generally speaking, the person who is saying, “I would agree with you/support you/support your cause if you were nicer about it” has no intention of ever agreeing or supporting in any way. Admittedly, getting into motive is tricky, and I hate to say, “you know it when you see it,” but this is obviously going to be subject to interpretation. However, this argument often comes down not to, “I agree with you, but I think you could have phrased it better,” but, “I would agree with you if you phrased it better.” The fallacy is not objecting to wording but putting a price on agreement or support.
- Some circumstances and topics certainly call for anger and vitriol. However, the key to this one is your purpose. Vitriol pretty much only works when (a) it’s aimed at someone other than your audience and (b) your audience already pretty much agrees with you. It’s great for rallying the troops, but for getting people to agree with you who didn’t before, it pretty much sucks. In this case, the logical fallacy is the assumption that the person offended by the writer’s anger is part of the writer’s intended audience. In other words, if you find yourself saying, “It’s not about you,” it’s probably a legitimate tone argument.
So yes, the tone argument absolutely exists and is absolutely used to derail and demean and otherwise distract from the fact that the person invoking it has no real argument against what they’re objecting to. That doesn’t mean that every single criticism of someone’s wording is a tone argument. That doesn’t mean that we can’t talk about how things are phrased. And it really, really doesn’t give people a free ticket to be an utter asshole.
Admittedly, I struggle with this, because hi, rhetorician, which is as much about how you say something as what you say. But as I’ve said a time or twelve, I also very much believe in purpose and context and audience. There are certainly combinations of these where anger and even vitriol is not only appropriate, but necessary. As I said above, it’s seldom particularly useful to be vitriolic toward your audience, although there are layers, there. I have been known to send a fairly pointed response or two to a blogger or company rep. However, usually when I do that, I know I have little hope of persuading the person I am actually addressing. I might hope to impress on them that their words or actions have genuinely upset me, but usually, by the time I’ve gotten to overt vitriol, I’ve given up on them, and am instead hoping that a secondary audience (other readers, usually) who are at least open to my ideas will be galvanized. So when someone says that they’d have listened if I’d just been nicer, and can just shrug and think, “no, you wouldn’t have,” and move on.
On the other hand, if I am genuinely trying to get people to listen to me and consider my ideas, then hostility and vitriol are probably not the best way to do it. If I want people to think about why a thread on hats at the royal wedding might bother some readers of a progressive blog, then opening with a sarcastic sneer at the blogger is probably not the best idea. If I want people to accept my critical comments about a book/tv show/etc, then saying that hearing people praise such horrid works makes me lose my faith in humanity, probably not a good idea. If I want to ask a question about a show that someone has just excitedly posted is coming back with new episodes, asking, “hey, did it ever stop sucking?” might just not be the way to go about it.
(And yes, those are real examples, and no, I’m not linking or naming names right now, because I kind of want to keep this about the principle and not the particular. Which isn’t to say you can’t disagree with me on them, of course.)
And again, to come to a major point, it doesn’t mean that every instance of, “You know, you’re kind of being an asshole” is a tone argument. Just as a relevant discussion of a writer’s character is not an ad hominem attack, saying, “You know, telling me to go to hell in the same breath that you ask me to explain what I mean does not exactly incline me to engage you in discussion” is not a tone argument. It’s a logical, reasonable, understandable response.
This is all a very long-winded way of saying: every discussion of tone is not a tone argument. And like anything else, people are going to disagree on whether something is or isn’t one. And also like so many other things, I don’t particularly hope to reach the handful of people who state things in the nastiest, most vitriolic, most derisive way possible and then cry “tone argument!” when anyone objects. What I wanted to do was work through just why those situations bother me, and maybe give myself and others a ground on which to discuss the complexities of the tone argument.
(See: purpose! Yeah, yeah, I’ll stop now.)