more listening, less tone-policing (please)

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Hey, I finished another cowl! This time, it’s brown. How now, brown cowl?

Brown Willow Cowl, finished.

Which means that I now have EIGHT Willow Cowls, in a whole rainbow of colors!

All 8 Willow Cowls.

There’s not really much more to say about the cowl – I mean, it’s the eighth one I’ve knit, so I obviously like the pattern and I’ve already said whatever there is to be said about it. But I do have a lot to say about tone-policing, so guess what? That’s what I’m going to talk about! (But with pretty cowl photos throughout, because eye-candy is nice.)

Recent events in the online knitting world have shown just how much white folks have to learn, and just how resistant they are to learning it, choosing instead to tone-police. And look, I appreciate a calm, kind, supportive tone as much as the next person, but we need to do a heck of a lot more listening to the content of what others have to say, because a calm, quiet tone can be used to express enormous amounts of disrespect, condescension, and hatred…and a loud, angry tone might well carry an important message, and the anger might very well be justified.

Brown Willow Cowl, finished.

When we care deeply about things, we tend to be more animated in the way that we talk about them, and when what we’re talking about is an injustice that affects us or those we care about deeply, there is going to be emotion there. To expect otherwise is to expect people to be robots. My own experience (OMG, so much experience) with being tone-policed tells me that white men, who are accustomed to living life as the “default” race & gender, are the most likely to pull the “tone-police” card, and I find that completely unsurprising: when the social issues being discussed don’t actually having any direct bearing on you (because, after all, you’re the “default” around whom everything is designed to work smoothly), it’s pretty darned easy to not have any real emotion in your voice when you talk about them; why, unless you are thinking about the impact on others, WOULD you have any emotional reaction to it? This then bleeds into viewing their own perspective as more “objective”, because it’s not “tainted” by emotion. The people who don’t have as much “skin in the game” can paint themselves as superior because they’re using a calm, polite tone to oppress others, and they can use the completely justified emotions of those who are oppressed as an excuse not to listen. This just keeps privileging white (and male) perspectives…it’s a never-ending cycle. But we need to end it.

Of course, as someone who has been a mindfulness practitioner for several years, and who will soon be teaching mindfulness classes to college students, I do think there is value in learning how to calm yourself, and how to communicate in a calm and measured way, even when you are very emotionally invested in something and in a heightened emotional state. That’s something I always try to do, though emotion does sometimes bleed in, because I’m human, after all. And I’m also female, which means that the set of emotions I’m “allowed” to express are very different from those that men are “allowed” to express. The way that “anger” is coded as “poison” when expressed by women but as perfectly normal and unremarkable for men, while many of the caretaking-related emotions that are expected of women are completely off-limits for men…these limits that patriarchy imposes are damaging to both genders. Let’s trample the rules that say that women are “scary” or “dangerous” or “toxic” when they’re angry, and that men are “weak” when they’re kind. Then we’d all be able to communicate (and beyond that, simply *exist*) more authentically.

All 8 cowls, in a delightfully squishy pile.
A nicely balanced pile of cowls

And as long as there are power-imbalances, there will be people who have every reason to be angry. And here’s the thing: I believe pretty strongly that it doesn’t matter how much the oppressed use a calm and measured tone…they’ll be accused of being “hostile” or “angry” or “divisive” or whatever else no matter what. Tone-policing is simply an excuse not to listen that makes the powerful seem “reasonable” – but the powerful will push back against the oppressed no matter what tone the oppressed use. But listening is precisely what the powerful need to be doing.

Here’s where the rubber hits the road for me: the context of parenting. (I have Sarah Pope to thank for pushing me to think about this.) It’s not at all unusual for a parent to “tone-police” their child; in fact, part of our job as parents is to help our children learn how to communicate in socially-acceptable/expected ways, and to teach them how to talk respectfully to us and to everyone else. Tone is actually something I have to pretty explicitly work on with my own child, who has social/pragmatic language difficulties; I need to do some pretty direct coaching about *how* to say things because my sweet child just doesn’t pick up on these “rules” the way a neurotypical child does. But whether or not neuro-atypicalities are at play, people who are distressed will not always have the capacity to express their distress in a way that hits our ears the way we want it to. To expect otherwise is absurd – but many, many parents essentially do this.

As Autistic Abby so eloquently put it back in 2015: “sometimes people who are used to being treated like an authority say ‘if you won’t respect me I won’t respect you’ and they mean ‘if you won’t treat me like an authority I won’t treat you like a person’ and they think they’re being fair but they aren’t, and it’s not okay.” When I’m talking about teaching children to communicate respectfully, here, I don’t mean “respect” as “talking to someone like they are an authority”; I simply mean “talking to someone like they are a human with inherent worth and dignity.” There are certainly power-imbalances between parents and children, and as I mentioned above, that’s going to give the less powerful good reason to feel angry sometimes; some of that is inherent to the nature of the parent-child relationship, I think, but I think that many parents insist on a kind of “respect” that equates to “treat me like an authority” while refusing to offer their child the kind of “respect” that means “treat them like a human with inherent worth and dignity” until that former kind of respect is displayed by the child towards them. And if that’s what we’re doing, I think we parents of white children are basically training them to be the next generation of tone-policers. I’m also really mindful of the fact that the work I do with my own child relating to tone and communicating respectfully is VERY different than the work that my friends who are parenting children who are not white have to do. Sure, a neurodivergent kid like mine has a rough road ahead of them if they struggle to learn how to interact with the rest of the world in expected ways…but, unless they’re a child of color, they’re unlikely to end up in a fatal encounter (with police or otherwise) because of an inability to communicate the kind of “respect” being demanded from them.

Out of focus Willow Cowl hug.
Out of focus Willow-Cowl hug

A couple of things jump out at me when I relate tone-policing to the context of parenting. One is that tone-policing is inherently paternalistic. If you’re telling someone how they should or should not communicate, you are putting yourself in the position of being their parent or teacher. That’s one thing if you actually ARE their parent or teacher, but it’s another thing entirely when they’re actually just a fellow adult member of society. It’s absolutely gross, and it goes hand-in-hand with colonialism.

The other thing that jumps out at me is this: Tone-policing ESCALATES. Here’s what I mean: let’s say my child is distressed about something, and is expressing their feelings about it in an angry tone. Let’s say I don’t find the thing that they’re distressed about to be particularly valid, so I try to shut them up by dismissing what they’re saying because of the tone they’re using – maybe I say, “don’t you dare talk to me like that!” or maybe I’m a bit nicer and I just say “fix your tone!”. What do you think happens? Does this magically calm the child down? NO! The child gets angrier and angrier. Because here’s the thing: when you’re angry, what you want is to be heard. When you’re dismissed instead, that’s enraging. We ALL feel angry when we aren’t heard. Like, that’s the most human thing in the world. If we can listen to another person’s anger without tone-policing them, I think that it can actually go a long way towards de-escalating things. If we can accept that someone else has negative feelings (maybe even negative feelings ABOUT US) without trying to police those feelings into silence, we can perhaps actually hear what they’re saying. Listening to the message underneath the angry tone also means that we’ll have a better understanding of the underlying problem, and thus a better shot at actually working to address it. And that is the ONLY way we are ever going to learn how to undo the systems of oppression that we’re all embedded in.

Presenting: 8 Willow Cowls.

The writers at Unfinished Object have an excellent post about tone-policing that I want to encourage everyone to read. One point they made: even if it’s true that we catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, who wants to waste their honey catching flies? And where I fall with this is that if we’re using “flies” as a metaphor for people who are behaving oppressively, it’s not so much that I want to “catch” them…but I actually do want to *reach* them, because I see that as an opportunity to change them. This, by the way, is not at all a comment on what OTHER people should do – please don’t waste your honey! But I’m a teacher at heart, and I’m also a white lady, and this is ally work, not something we should even remotely expect of people who are actively marginalized.

And it turns out that vinegar’s actually way better for cleaning house AND for catching at least some kinds of flies! Can it work with people? I want to think out loud about how we get people to change. Because it’s not wrong to say that people learn better when they feel safe and secure (we KNOW that’s true, from loads of research) and it’s easy to take that and think that it means that the people who aren’t “watching their tone” are being counterproductive to the goal of changing people…but here’s the catch: “safety” is not the same thing as “comfort”. And in fact, too much comfort is not all that helpful for true learning, because learning? It’s about changing. (Like, inherently so: you are a different person, with a differently-wired brain, after you’ve learned something than you were before.) And if you’re really comfortable, there’s no real impetus to change. We’re prompted to change when something’s not right…and that’s uncomfortable. The problem is that so many white people mistake discomfort for a lack of safety, and they FREAK OUT. (Read Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility” for more about this.) Safety, in the context of learning, is in large part about having *low-stakes* spaces where you can mess up and learn from your mistakes…these things are important because if the stakes are too high, we fall into perfectionism and lose our capacity to learn and grow. But guess what? The stakes here aren’t really as high as we think. Yes, I know…people say that they worry that they’re going to accidentally “say the wrong thing” and end up losing their business as a result, but what actually makes the stakes that high is the unwillingness to own a mistake, apologize authentically, and learn from the experience. Because we ALL screw up from time to time. But the people who own their mistakes, who don’t respond defensively, who actively listen to the criticism they’re receiving and use it as the impetus to change, generally end up in a better place in the end, not a worse one. It’s the people who defensively double-down who end up losing business, etc…but it was their own reaction that raised the stakes. If you aren’t open to being wrong, you can’t learn…and you’ll end up causing even more harm when you double down.

All 8 Willow Cowls.

I don’t want to minimize how distressing it can feel to be “called out”, especially given the speed with which things can happen online. I think that social media can quickly amplify things beyond a level that our social brains can really cope with, and I think even people who are open to being wrong and to trying to make things right can end up feeling absolutely overwhelmed by the responses they get if something they said gets passed around and goes “viral”. It’s not that there aren’t any stakes at all – it is legitimately overwhelming to have hundreds or even thousands of people responding to something you said. (I mean, heck, when Ysolda shared my post on her Instagram account, there weren’t even a hundred responses, and they were all positive, and I still felt a little “WHOA” at the amount of replies, and overwhelmed by the way my inbox filled up! I have no idea how people with much more widely-read accounts than mine cope, honestly.) I understand how this would make a person feel really defensive, as if they are under attack. But it is ALWAYS an option to take a deep breath before responding. It’s always an option to tell people that you’re realizing that you messed up. It’s always an option to thank them for helping you see something that you weren’t seeing before. It’s always an option to apologize to the people you’ve hurt. It’s always an option to try to restore things…but importantly, this isn’t about restoring your sense of your own goodness, but rather, the people and relationships you’ve harmed with your words.

Think of criticism like medicine. It may not be all that pleasant, but it’s exactly what you need to get better. A spoonful of sugar can certainly help the medicine go down, and it’s great if we can give you the medicine with a bit of sugar in it, if we’ve got the sugar to spare, but in the end, if you’re sick (and believe me, all of us who’ve grown up steeped in cultures of white supremacy are sick), it’s the medicine that matters, and you need to take it, sugar or not.

So many Willow Cowls!

(And yes, these cowl photos are totally sugar.)

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