Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Magic Words: "Tone Policing" And "Gaslighting"

In the interests of clarity, a brief discourse on the subject of two words I see frequently in various conversations around the Internet: "tone policing" and "gaslighting". Both could have legitimate uses, but as typically employed, they reflect poorly on the user. Despite claims to the opposite, they are in fact efforts to silence discussion.

Tone Policing

For "tone policing", I head to the always useful Everyday Feminism, which provides an example from Robot Hugs.

That's all nice, but it also fails a critical test: if you want to persuade people of your position, you need to take their interests and viewpoints in mind. That is, to object "tone policing" is the sound of the speaker failing to tailor the message to the audience — and demanding that audience listen and agree anyway. You want to call people names, yell at the top of your lungs, have a tantrum in public? Fine, but don't expect anyone to pay attention to your position, let alone adopt it. Is your purpose to persuade, or vent?

That is, ultimately, they must answer the question, do I want to be a jerk in order to make a point? For a longer-form meditation on tone policing that involves Arthur Chu, the now-ancient hashtag #StopClymer, and whales not getting cancer, Scott Alexander's "Living By The Sword" has some interesting (if perhaps overlong) examples. He wraps up thusly:
... [I]f you elevate jerkishness into a principle, if you try to undermine the rules that keep niceness, community, and civilization going, the defenses against social cancer – then your movement will fracture, it will be hugely embarrassing, the atmosphere will become toxic, unpopular people will be thrown to the mob, everyone but the thickest-skinned will bow out, the people you need to convince will view you with a mixture of terror and loathing, and you’ll spend so much time dealing with internal conflicts that you’ll never get enough blood supply to grow large enough to kill a whale.
The whale-killing remark stems from an observation that whales don't apparently get cancer; one possible explanation for this is that cancers are not all that good at cooperation, and so "whales survive because they are so big that their cancers get cancer and die." (He mentions in the text that this is possibly not the case, but ad argumentum it serves his purpose for social structures as well.) That is, non-cooperative actors in a society, if they get to be numerous enough, start succumbing to their intrinsic fractiousness and selfishness. It looks something like this, on-screen:


Derived from the 1944 feature Gas Light; Wikipedia expands: "The plot concerns a husband who attempts to convince his wife and others that she is insane by manipulating small elements of their environment, and subsequently insisting that she is mistaken, remembering things incorrectly, or delusional when she points out these changes." That is, the husband tries to make his wife think she misremembers factual events.

Used thus, "gaslighting" is a valuable (if infrequently applicable) term. Yet all too frequently, we see "gaslighting" used as a sword to dispatch others' interpretations of events, as though the speaker's version were the only one possible. Kris Nelson's definition at Everyday Feminism is instructive (formatting is original):
In short, gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse “in which information is twisted or spun, selectively omitted to favor the abuser, or false information is presented with the intent of making victims doubt their own memory, perception, and sanity.”

Essentially, gaslighting is a tactic used to destabilize your understanding of reality, making you constantly doubt your own experiences.
 It gets better:
Furthermore, gaslighting is commonly used to discredit the lived experiences of mentally ill and neurodivergent folks, which is both abusive and ableist.
Several points here:
  1. It is incumbent on the speaker to convince others of their interpretations of events.
  2. Disagreements on those interpretations are not "abusive".
  3. Maybe you are just plain crazy, which is why others doubt you.
 The first definition of gaslighting (about factual events) is useful; the second (about interpretations) is manipulative.

Magic Words

Both of these terms are forms of something Freddie deBoer called "magic words", which supports a style of argumentation he calls "We Are Already Decided" (emboldening mine):
This is the form of argument, and of comedy, that takes as its presumption that all good and decent people are already agreed on the issue in question. In fact, We Are All Already Decided presumes that the offense is not just in thinking the wrong thing you think but in not realizing that We Are All Already Decided that the thing you think is deeply ridiculous. And the embedded argument, such as it is, is not on the merits of whatever issue people are disagreeing about, but on the assumed social costs of being wrong about an issue on which We Are All Already Decided. Which is great, provided everybody you need to convince cares about being part of your little koffee klatsch. If not, well….

All of this, frankly, is politically ruinous. I meet and interact with a lot of young lefties who are just stunning rhetorically weak; they feel all of their politics very intensely but can’t articulate them to anyone who doesn’t share the same vocabulary, the same set of cultural and social signifiers that are used to demonstrate you’re one of the “right sort of people.” These kids are often great, they’re smart and passionate, I agree with them on most things, but they have no ability at all to express themselves to those who are not already in their tribe. They say terms like “privilege” or “mansplain” or “tone policing” and expect the conversation to somehow just stop, that if you say the magic words, you have won that round and the world is supposed to roll over to what you want.
 The problem, then, is that such calls do not address an opposition audience so much as they signal virtue. They talk past those who need convincing. They ignore actual facts and counterargument. And they are irreparably smug.

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