Tone Deaf


I've long disliked the caustic methods of Richard Dawkins. I've had similar issues with Christopher Hitchens. Dawkins has a very arrogant, abrasive tone. Fans of Dawkins love his biting wit and his haughty yet matter-of-fact smackdowns. Okay, sure, I also love me some smackdowns. The youtube clips of some of his best lines can be a rare guilty pleasure.

In contrast, Neil deGrasse Tyson has a very open, understanding and personable way of speaking that engages everyone who listens. The man is fucking pumped about astrophysics and he's absolutely delighted to help you understand why. You can feel it bursting out of him all-at-once and you start to get frustrated on his behalf at how the slowness of language is obviously mistranslating his intensity of feeling. He's a favourite guest of Stephen Colbert's and the two have a great rapport even out-of-character.

This video is old, but it's a brilliant moment between the two men. Neil deGrasse Tyson expresses his concerns over Richard Dawkins' "sharpness and articulately barbed" manner of communicating. Check out Dawkins' reaction; it's important.

Now, you can dispute whether or not Dawkins is just responding sarcastically. My husband has listened to many of Dawkins' lectures/Q&As online, so he has a better sense of Dawkins' personality. He thinks Dawkins is serious in his initial response: "I gratefully accept the rebuke." The audience laughs, but I agree that he's speaking plainly and genuinely here. But why would he, a well-known careful speaker and critical thinker, acknowledge any merit in the criticism if we should all just ignore tone and focus solely on arguments in all cases?

Tyson's rebuke is, essentially, the 'More flies with honey' argument. It is defined at that link as being a derailing tactic and a variant of the Tone Argument. And of course, I'm certain that this kind of shut-down/derail tactic is often used exactly as defined there -- to stop discussion and ignore an issue.

"The attitude is that advocates of feminism or critics of sexism aren't worth listening to if they are not extremely polite, patient, reasonable and forgiving, even, or especially, to very insulting, outrageous or frightening provocation."

I imagine that feminism, in particular, may be strongly averse to any hint of this specific derailing tactic because it invokes a couple of equal-but-opposite stereotypes: that women should endeavour to be kind, sweet and pleasant in conversation, while at the same conjuring the image of a hysterical, emotional wreck that every woman should avoid becoming. As such, there are very good reasons for women to seethe and fight against, "Well if you were just nicer about it, maybe I'd listen to your point."

Except that when I see specific examples of someone calling out another for using the Tone Argument as a derailing tactic, I often find it hard to get on-board. I understand it, I get that it's a logical fallacy to claim Tone as more important than Argument, and I understand the necessity of calling that crap out for what it is. But with all of that, I still sometimes find myself conflicted on supporting individual instances of folks getting called-out. The anger in spotting a derailment tactic in-the-wild isn't really there for me. I think that I usually just don't have it in me. I also share similar concerns as Tyson about the ideal, emotionless, perfect argument versus the reality of talking to actual people.

I grew up with the idea that I'm going to have trouble pursuing a career and interests that are primarily male-dominated. I've been told to my face that I will never make as much money as a man, which has since proven itself patently false and, in hindsight, kind of irritating in its defeatism-diguised-as-advice. I've had a couple of sexist incidents happen to me that made me unhappy, but largely I've just been guarding myself against all sorts of specific sexist things that haven't ever manifested. (Perhaps this is a side-effect of living where I do. I like the tech industry in this city.) I, personally, don't really have the required Fight in me to be aggressive about many of the feminist issues I've been reading about over the past year. I can't will that anger into existence, and feel it would be wrong to pretend it's there. Different battles demand different tactics; I don't think we all have to do it the same way. Myself, I don't feel like to proving my point with 'articulate barbs,' as Tyson so gently put it.

Even Tyson's comment about Dawkins being an asshole is nice! The man is talented. I almost want to start looking more into astrophysics because he tries so hard to win people like me over. I'm like, "I really ought to care about space, what's wrong with me?" when he gets going. His earnestness itself becomes a reason for others to care.


Given what I know of other peoples' bad experiences out there and how they can shape a perspective, it's not my intention nor place to tell anybody else how kindly or ferociously they should state their case. I have no doubt that another person's experiences arguing against stubborn and rude brick walls have brought this set of derailing tactics to light. I do think I'm kind of lucky that I haven't really had such awful experiences. My luxury is being able to say, I get what you're saying and I get why you're saying it like that. But I don't want to say it the same way, and I think it's okay for me to do something I'm more comfortable with.

Tyson mentioned "a sensitivity to your [opponent's] state of mind." I can't shake off how important I think this sensitivity is; I'm unable to diminish it. The Tone Argument is a logical fallacy, there's no question, and that should be the end of any discussion on its merits right there. But however illogically, this sensitivity still carries great weight with me when I consider how we actually conduct ourselves and live our lives.

From a feminist perspective, we are all caught in the patriarchy/kyriarchy. It's been described rather ham-fistedly as a version of The Matrix, permeating all aspects of our lives. I loathe the comparison, but I understand the sentiment and feeling that spawns it. As an example, for some reason I recently decided it would be a GREAT idea to go through the Wheel of Time series and I'm on book four and OH MY GOD how many times does Jordan have to exclaim "Burn all women" or "Men need a firm hand." I had read the first three books once years before, but after my education, this reading is turning into kind of an overly-critical gender-bash. Good thing there's only about FOUR MILLION WORDS.

So yeah, I get that knowing about the patriarchy changes your perspective on the world. Little gender-based nuggets like those above shine a lot brighter and become more annoying. The thing is, when we have these feminist discussions with other people, we are having them inside that environment. In the quest to Fix The World and establish equality, we are starting at a disadvantage.

We have to work hard to help people understand that on a very fundamental level, we see a different world than they do. This ties in to the definition of privilege, and I guess the whole Matrix thing too. (ugh) The world looks different, you notice things differently, small things don't pass you by in the same way they used to. How do you even begin to explain this to someone?

Well, this kind of thing is a decent start. It begins by giving the reader a good idea of the quantity and quality of harassment that some women face and the feelings that get wrapped up in, uh, street compliments. Later, in the sanctity of the bedroom, either as she reluctantly ends (or starts) her day with this weight (dread) on her shoulders, she shares what's been bothering her. Her explanations prove insufficient to properly convey what's happening in her daily life. Her search for comfort and understanding has more than failed: the over-emotional/over-sensitive stereotype is invoked by none other than her partner. The look on her face in that last panel is devastating.

This is probably one of the better attempts I've seen so far. It's not perfect, and it's a bit long, and it takes a while to get started (I'm really selling this), but it's worth a read. A portion of it closely captures my feelings about the minds of the people we have to convince, particularly these lines:

"This is not because the dog is a jerk. This is because the dog has no fucking clue what the lizard even just said."

This is an acknowledgement and genuine consideration of an opponent's frame of reference and worldview. Related to the 'sensitivity' above, I see this acknowledgement of your opponent's worldview as incredibly important.

Both of these examples use art and story to create a framework and establish a world that can help a reader draw close parallels to reality. Of course the Matrix one does, too, but it comes off as alien and too pointedly constructed. Yes, I'm saying that something that specifically addresses the entirety of the patriarchy in our daily lives is worse than a story about a talking dog and lizard; that's how unrelatable it is. The other two stories do a decent job at bringing to light small pieces of a worldview, rather than drowning someone in a green world with falling text.

A friend of mine pointed out that some of these discussions we're seeing do not "constitute dialogue. They mimic it; but the intended audience is their own faction." Perhaps that Matrix comic is the same way -- it's not looking to convince anybody, just reinforce already-established opinions and knowledge. I think it says something that even with what I know, I still find the comic strange and feel distanced from it. Its hit-you-over-the-head manner alienates me and its requirement to see everything differently all at once is too big of a step for anyone to really take. It's hard to see that comic as a catalyst for change in anyone.

No, I don't think it's fair that we have to work harder. I don't think it's right, either. None of it is right; that disadvantage is kind of the point. It's that it seems intellectually dishonest for me to not acknowledge this reality, as I experience it, and try to work within the framework I've got. My worldview does not (yet?) include opponents towards whom I wish to be anything less than civil. Maybe it's just an accidental bonus that I often prefer to go through the exercise of considering someone else's heart and mind when trying to help them understand my own. But I'll conduct myself how I wish, and that's it. Who the fuck am I to tell anyone else how they should fight? They've got their worldview, I've got mine.

Who knows, perhaps after too much immersion in such regularly-heated discussions I'll become jaded, lose this outlook and angrily call out derailing tactics everywhere. But if there's any Fight that I do have, it's to avoid adopting that worldview for as long as I possibly can.

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