Why it’s sometimes a good idea to use a negative tone against people who agree with your political opinions

meanThe other day (or was it today?) my twitter peep T.S. Christian was writing about how she doesn’t understand the tone argument (i.e. the argument frequently made about activist postings–that the tone is too controversial or strident): after all, the tone doesn’t invalidate the content.

And I was thinking, you know, this is a common feeling in the activist community. And there’s a really good reason for that. It’s because a person’s perception of tone is often driven by an unconscious racism on the part of the hearer. There’s really nothing a black woman can say that’s not going to sound aggressive to a white man. So if activists put too much stock in the tonal perceptions of people they disagree with, they’d go crazy, because some people are just never going to “hear” them right, no matter what tone they use.

So let’s take that as a given.

However, I think most activists will agree that–regardless of how their tone is perceived–they do vary their tone in a purposeful way. Sometimes you make an observation in a highly derogatory way and sometimes you say it in a conciliatory, understanding way. I’d say that neither of these is inherently superior to the other, since both are rhetorical tactics. Political speech–even more than most speech–has to walk a delicate line between emotion and reason.

Because, ostensibly, politics–and particularly public policy–is mostly about reason. In a liberal democracy, we start from basically the same principles–we all hate suffering and oppression–and then try to argue, in an evidence-based way, for policies that will reduce suffering and oppression. And once there is enough agreement, then a policy will come closer to fruition.

However, in practice, everything is about emotion. Because change is not about agreement, it’s about action. And the point of political discussion is not to get people to agree with you; it’s to get them to act.

In this world, there’s plenty of agreement without action. For instance, I believe in all the right things, but I literally never do anything about them. I don’t even use my tiny amount of social capital to advance the causes that I believe in, because that might mean upsetting some people. It’s just not worth it to me. My agreement is worthless.

However, if I was angrier about the state of the world, then I might be more inclined to act.

I recently had tea with a friend of mine who spent most of our two hour discussion talking about how powerless and angry he felt over the state of the world. And it was clear, to me, that he simply felt the distress of the suffering much more keenly than I do.

I think that, to a large degree, the purpose of much political speech is not to make some Republican into a person like me; it’s to make people like me into people like him.

I think you can see this most clearly in some classic activist texts. For instance, Martin Luther King’s Why We Can’t Wait is an intensely angry jeremaiad against moderate whites for the way that they keep telling black people to wait for their time and not rock the boat and not engage in radical action.

What is the purpose of that?

To me, it feels like its purpose is to strike people in their sense of complacency. It’s to tell people that you cannot reap the rewards of agreement any longer; unless you act, you are the enemy. It drives some people away, but that’s okay. Their agreement wasn’t worth much. However, it drives some people closer…and those are the ones who really matter.

I think that this is why the wars within various liberal movements are so powerful and so vicious (I’m thinking, for instance, of the ever-simmering war between progressive white women and radical women of color; or the war between affluent gay males and the rest of the queer community). It’s because that’s where movements are won or lost. If the gay marriage movement has taught us anything, it is that the opinions of the majority do not matter, precisely because most people in the majority will alter their opinions as soon as they perceive a shift in the general climate. The issue in any progressive cause is not with going from having 10% of the population in agreement with you to having 50% in agreement with you–it’s in going from having 100,000 people who are willing to act to 500,000 people who are willing to act.

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  1. Cat Rambo

    The tone argument is something I’ve been mulling over, because I’ve been watching the SFWA controversies closely. It’s enlightening to see it framed in this way and this altered my perspective on it a bit. This was very useful, Rahul, thank you.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      I think the counterpart to the tone argument is that, well, people are gonna be offended by whatever they’re going to be offended by, and there’s nothing you can do to stop them. Oftentimes, you don’t really care about that, because, whatever, it’s not like they were really helping you much (on a political level) anyway. But w/r/t SFWA, I definitely _do_ care about not offending people.

      it’s harder in SFWA because we all have to work with each other. Whereas, in general, there might not be much of a downside to offending the bystanders, here in SFWA there is a very definite downside. Personally, while I understand the way that some people in SFWA are willing to call out other people in SFWA, I would never do it myself. I have a career to think about it! I feel like the reason we have fans is so they can call out authors. They’ve got nothing to lose, so they can say whatever they want =)

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