Public Discourse Analysis Series: #02 the tone argument (Andrew Bolt, blog; Richard Hinds, SMH)

#02: Only one notch above blatantly reducing the argument to the person (argumentum ad hominem, dealt with in the first installment of the series) is reducing the argument to its tone.

This works by way of taking an indefinite break from the actual argument, and saying: you might be right, but your tone is so problematic that we cannot move on until we have sorted out the question your tone.

In practice, this argument is most often used when a person makes a statement about some ongoing injustice being committed against a minority voice, and, in the lack of empirical data, talks about their own personal experience (‘So and so many of my friends were raped’ / ‘I was raped’ / ‘My family was locked up in detention’ / ‘I have experienced subtle racism’, etc). The less likely the experience is to be normally discussed among, shall we say, the majority population, the more likely it is to be perceived as somehow inappropriate in tone. Anything concerning menstruation, for example, might be shot down on tone before it even makes its point. Derailing for Dummies, for example, calls it ‘derailing using emotion’, and recognises three common forms:

– You’re Being Overemotional
– You’re Just Oversensitive
– You’re Taking Things Too Personally.

These are the ways in which it plays out for particularly marginalised voices talking about their own discrimination. But, theoretically, anyone is vulnerable to the argument of tone, because every voice has a tone. The offending tone may be: shrill, aggressive, impolite, rude, hurtful, offensive, offensive to a third party, out of line, too emotional, too scholarly, too frivolous, humourless…

Paul Graham explains the fallacy of the argument thus:

Though better than attacking the author, this is still a weak form of disagreement. It matters much more whether the author is wrong or right than what his tone is. Especially since tone is so hard to judge. Someone who has a chip on their shoulder about some topic might be offended by a tone that to other readers seemed neutral.

So if the worst thing you can say about something is to criticize its tone, you’re not saying much. Is the author flippant, but correct? Better that than grave and wrong. And if the author is incorrect somewhere, say where.

The only way to deal with the argument of tone is to doggedly focus on the argument, and resist all bait. However, what usually happens is that the attacked speaker responds to the argument of tone by something like ‘what about YOUR tone, dude?’, to which the response is ‘WHOA WHOA WHOA!’, and the argument might then spend a hundred years arguing about who is the worst offender of tone, completely forgetting the original subject of the discussion.

Let’s look now at one very emotional issue, that of racism, and how it plays out in the public sphere. Watch how Andrew Bolt’s blog masterfully turns a question of racism into a question of tone, which is then promptly picked up and continued in the comments section:


Full article: Andrew Bolt: Shame on the witchhunters, May 29, 2013.

However, this is an argument that spans political divisions. There is no need to analyse the full article, because it is already quoted in Bolt’s text. However, look how it sets out the a counter-argument to Bolt:


The most interesting thing, however, is the way this argument continues in the comments of SMH, where an entire sub-argument develops over the ‘proper tonal response’ to racism. By the end of the comments, the transformation of the argument is complete.


Full article: Richard Hinds, Goodes’ Outstretched Hand Still Can’t Reach Lunatic Fringe, 28 May, 2013. + comments.

Disclaimer: all copyrighted material dealt with fairly, for the purposes of criticism, as described under The Copyright Act, Fair Dealing (G079v06). If you have an objection, please let me know at jana dot perkovic at gmail dot com, I am more than happy to discuss matters amicably.


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