Argument from tone and the calm catch-22

When I was a kid, adults often would exhort me to tell them if something was wrong. If someone was hitting me, or saying bad things to me, or otherwise abusing me, they claimed they wanted to know. If I was upset, they claimed they wanted to know. If there was a mistake, they claimed they wanted to know.

I say “claimed” because by the time I was 10, I had come to believe these exhortations were lies.

Why? Because of tone arguments.

You see, if I told them while still in the height of the emotions these situations generated – while I was in tears and stuttery because words were hard and cursy because I was upset – I would get dismissed. “Keep a civil tongue in your head!” they’d yell at me before I was punished. And after I’d calmed down, they’d refuse to hear me out. “If you couldn’t say it nicely, I don’t want to hear it.” and “You’d catch more flies with honey than vinegar,” and so on and so forth. It was a goal for me at school for quite a while. “[my name] will learn to explain why she is upset in a calm and respectful manner instead of shouting, crying, throwing things, or hitting.” One that I was never able to succeed at in the heat of the emotion – I can’t not shout if I’m angry, and I can’t not cry if I’m hurt. It’s just not how my body emotes.

Since I couldn’t talk in a “calm” manner when I was upset, so if I was upset and someone asked me why, I would ignore them. Because if I tried to explain, I’d get yelled at and punished. But then, if I didn’t answer, I got yelled at and punished for ignoring. So I learned to hide away when I was upset, since adults would demand that I do what I couldn’t do – namely express myself verbally in a “calm and respectful” manner (which, as far as I’ve ever been able to tell, means no shouting and no tears and no cursing) – while I was upset. Even now, as an adult, if I am upset and I need to explain it to a person who I know will dismiss me if I get too shouty, I switch to text-based communication. I cannot explain verbally and in the tone that others want me to in the heat of the moment. It is difficult to do in writing, but impossible to do orally. Why? I have a hard time even making words happen when I’m upset. How am I supposed to concentrate on making words happen and on volume control and on facial expression and on avoiding harsh tone and on body language and and and anything else the person in question finds objectionable? It’s unreasonable of me. Maybe allistic adults can do it, but I severely doubt it – none of the allistic adults I’ve ever met can be calm and nonshouty and nonsweary when they’re upset, either.

So then, I decided to try to tell about it when I was calmed down. And I would wring my hands and pinch my fingers and bite my cheek all the way through the discussion to show my best emotional detachment – because if I got upset at all, I would be yelled at and dismissed for being mean, rude, disrespectful, etc.

I did my best to be all honey and no vinegar.

And I was still dismissed. Because I was “obviously lying”. Because if that “really happened,” I would be more upset. And because I wasn’t showing how upset I was, I had to be just making it up for attention.

This sets up a catch-22: one where tone arguments demand that people be “calm” and “respectful” about things that are traumatic and upsetting and hurtful, while at the same time demanding that they show their upset because if they really had that happen, they’d be more upset. Where, unless you’ve mastered the art of performing socially acceptable victimhood (something I still can’t do at 26), you will be dismissed no matter how you discuss it, as you have two mutually exclusive demands being placed upon you. 

Additionally, this catch-22 is only ever expected of people when they are expressing socially-unacceptable upset: when a child is angry with an adult for lying, when a woman complains of sexism, when a person with a disability complains about an access fail, when a trans* person complains about misgendering, when a person of color complains of racism, and so on and so forth. It is not when we complain of socially-acceptable hurts and pissoffs that we’re given an argument from tone. If an airline bumps a person from a flight, people don’t police that person’s tone (though they might tell the person to not be abusive of the airline employee, but being abusive and being upset are two different things). We don’t police tone because it’s an acceptable time to get angry.  It’s only when someone’s upset challenges the rightness of the status quo that the person is subjected to that catch-22.

Because of the fact that nobody tone-polices socially-acceptable upset, while socially-unacceptable upset is subject to the catch-22 of “must be calm while showing upset,” I have learned to read tone arguments as, “I don’t actually care about what you have to say. It is uncomfortable for me to hear it, and there is no way in which you will convince me so you may as well not try.” What tone arguments do is silence the marginalized and the victimized for the convenience and comfort of those in power. And that’s why they’re wrong.

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One thought on “Argument from tone and the calm catch-22

  1. […] issues, bullying, depression, lack of understanding, medical challenges, marginalization, disrespect, abuse, […]

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