People are listened to or ignored based on their intersectional standing in kyriarchy (the combination of bigoted systems like misogyny and white supremacy). White women are called emotional while black women are called angry. White armed men are called patriots while black armed men are called thugs.
“Tone policing” is a form of microaggression where the person in a position of privilege chastises an oppressed person for their real or imagined negative tone, such as a neurotypical mom scolding autistic adults for not using nicer words to tell her bleach enemas are bad for her children. Tone policing is not every instance where one person asks another to tone it down a bit. When I asked my alcoholic husband not to scream at me, that wasn’t tone policing. It was self-defense.
While genuine tone policing is a problem, and a symptom of a larger problem, tone does matter and can be abusive. Telling someone to kill themselves is fucked up. Insulting bodies is wrong even when you really don’t like the people in them. Naked hostility is a genuine trigger for many people.
So how do we balance these needs? How do we ensure that marginalized people can make their voices heard? How can we hold ourselves and each other accountable for the impact our words and tone have on others?
I think there are three guidelines that can help. First, remember that the other people on the internet are just that, people. They can break. Second, remember that in public forums, the audience is listening. While you don’t owe a jerk a nice tone, you may persuade more bystanders if you keep the vitriol in check. Third, if you can’t refrain from treating another human awfully, disengage. Go do some self-care or some activism. Go be with people you love who love you.
I’m not saying polite tones are the only good ones or that anyone owes a specific tone to others. But it’s important to remember that even my enemies are people.