The Tone Police: Don’t Bernie Me, Bro

There are a lot of people on the internet. Some prefer chocolate. Others, vanilla. The chocolate people are wrong. Amirite?  No, of course not. People can prefer any flavor they want, and no one has to either explain or justify why they prefer one to the other. Indeed, there is no explanation. They prefer what they prefer. There’s no explanation for such things.

Yet, if someone was to write that they preferred vanilla, there will inevitably be someone who can’t resist the impulse to respond, “I disagree. Vanilla is a terrible flavor. Chocolate is much better and you’re wrong and a moron.” What would make someone respond this way can be explained as narcissism, stupidity, the inexplicable and irresistible impulse to spew whatever bit of inanity that pops into one’s head out loud.

But the vanilla/chocolate “debate” has no substance. One is not inherently righter than the other. It’s merely a personal preference. When the beef is about “tone,” it is similarly substanceless, but usually seizes upon personal preference to ignore substance. And yet, the self-appointed tone police are always on the job.

In a remarkable post at Fault Lines, Josh Kendrick explained Judge Persky’s sentence of Brock Turner versus Raul Ramirez. The issues involved were highly contentious, replete with misinformation and misunderstanding of information, overwhelmed by emotion that blinded some to the substance.  Josh tackled the pervasive stupid head on:

It’s fascinating how people who know nothing about the law are confident in their ability to comment on every facet of it. You wouldn’t start pushing buttons in the space shuttle without knowing what they do. You probably don’t comment on the wisdom of a complex medical decision. But when it comes to the law, everybody is an expert.

This hurt a lot feelings, because people are entitled to their opinion, no matter how little they grasp, or how false the bases for their emotions may be.  And as one might expect, there was some genius at reddit’s r/law whose complaint was that he didn’t care for Josh’s tone. It was “off-putting.” Some people will like a writer’s approach. Some will not. Is it a valid complaint that someone on the internet was put off by the tone? More importantly, is it worthwhile to raise the issue of tone, as if a writer can match the sensibilities of every person on the internet?

A few years back, a lawprof, Bernie Burk, who was then at UNC and is now at Campbell University School of Law, decided to take on the law school transparency problem by dismissing its validity.  He was, in turn, ripped to shreds for being such a monumental asshole.

Burk’s response was to refuse to acknowledge that ruckus he made because he didn’t care for the tone of those who disagreed with him. He called the tone “toxic.” Upon the advice of “friends,” he removed his plaint and tried to salvage some minute dignity from the ashes. Which could explain why he’s now at Campbell University instead of UNC.

No one owes you the “tone” you prefer. You don’t get to demand that other people use the tone that suits your feelz.  And yet, people persist in pointing at tone.

I can be snarky at times. I do so because I choose to. I find it an effective way to make a point. I also recognize that it won’t please everyone. Who cares?  No, dipshit, of the millions of people on the internet, my purpose is not to please one random person who would prefer the ice cream in my Sundae was chocolate.

In reaction to my post about the TSA, a random dipshit twitted back at me, “The tone of this article is too snide to be helpful, but some very good points are raised.” Not only does no one care that this random dipshit thinks the points raised were good, but he felt it important to tell me that the tone was “too snide.” After I called him out, he tried to sidestep his narcissism.

He then tried to deny he was tone policing at all, but just social justice policing my classism. Ironically, had that been true, it would be fine. Not that I agree, but at least it’s a substantive complaint.

You can disagree with me, not that anyone cares. Think this through: someone on the internet disagrees with someone else. Let’s alert the media. You may have arguments that are valid, or dispute the facts, both of which offer substantive thought. No one gives a shit that you disagree, but why you disagree may matter and may be informative and persuasive.

But the tone didn’t match your feelz?  That goes beyond the irrelevancy of the mere proffer of the insipid, “I disagree,” into the realm of being Bernie. Do you want to be Bernie? Do you, in the dark and mushy place you call your head, think that the tone that suits your delicate sensibilities dictates the ways of the internet, of writers who provide substance that illuminates issues, just in ways that make you feel all hinky? Do you really think that your feelz are so valuable, so preeminent, that they will not only be worth publicly announcing, but will influence others to change everything to please you?

There is a woman involved in the campus sexual assault issue whose heart is in the right place, but whose head isn’t up to the job. At one point, I engaged in an email discussion with her, until she decided to chastise me for using words that she didn’t care for, as if she was a mommy scolding a wayward child.

I then ended the discussion and told her, in essence, to bite me, that she doesn’t get to tell me what words I’m allowed to use.  She doesn’t have to engage with me, but she doesn’t get to tone police me. She occasionally interjects on the twitters,* but still can’t grasp that she does’t get to play mommy and tell the nasty child to speak nicely.

If tone matters more to you than substance, then go find writing that suits your preference for chocolate over vanilla. But no one gives a damn that the tone displeased you, and there is a strong likelihood that your compulsion to be the tone police renders your views worthless to anyone else. Or as an emotional chocolate lover wrote in a comment to Josh’s post:

You don’t like that. Tough shit.

*As an aside, she informed me that she agreed with “some” of my comments, as if her validation should matter. I can try to explain the law in small words (that was snarky), but I can’t cure narcissism (that was snarky too).

4 thoughts on “The Tone Police: Don’t Bernie Me, Bro

  1. Patrick Maupin

    Bernie’s problem is endemic, and appears to be a combination of a failure to distinguish facts from deeply held opinions (the vanilla vs. chocolate problem) along with the oddly pervasive idea that there is a nice way to say mean things.

    I do not mean to say that three twenty-somethings who have essentially never practiced or taught law have no place explaining how to assemble a curriculum or run a law school so that its graduates will be both prepared to practice and attractive to legal employers in the most difficult legal job market in American history. I do mean to say that, if you don’t know how to do it and you don’t know how to teach it, you really ought to do your homework so that your prescriptions are meticulously grounded in empirical experience and coherent argument. Sadly, you won’t find much of either here….

    That’s somewhat muted, but it’s still mean and completely fact-free.

    Maybe these people are honestly confused. Maybe the teaching that, if you need to deliver an unpleasant fact, it’s best to try to do it nicely has somehow bled over and transmogrified into: if you want to deliver an unpleasant attack, it’s OK if you do it as obliquely with as many syllables as possible.

    But the cynic in me believes that this mode of argumentation is actually designed to provoke an intemperate response, so that the Bernies of the world can then (accurately, in many cases) say “that’s really rude and doesn’t address any points (so I’m not engaging you further).”

    Of course, this strategy falls apart and Bernie has to go cowering back to mommy if others notice that the response actually did contain a few cogent arguments along with the well-deserved reciprocal rudeness.

    1. SHG Post author

      You’re right. There is a passive-aggressiveness that, when done well, is designed to provoke an angry, self-fulfilling response. Much easier to just tell the Bernies of the world that they’re fucking weasels.

  2. Mike

    I come here for the snark and to learn about the law, but mostly for the snark. Just makes me feel all hinky.

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