Tone and language matter. I've discussed this before, but every day, it seems, I come across stray comments on the internet about how ... tone doesn't matter, this is well known, it's illegitimate to raise issues of tone when discussing what someone else has written, etc. It's not that I see this from high-profile people, so I'm not blaming, for example, any well-known "New Atheist" writer for spreading such a silly idea, but I do see it from innumerable commenters all over the internet. I don't know where the idea originally came from, though of course some of it may be a reaction to such phenomena as the notorious "You're Not Helping" blog, which was dedicated to making accusations about the "unhelpfulness" of New Atheist writers.
Any sample of spoken or written language can be analysed in terms of features such as its tone and style. Often, there may be nothing very interesting to say about these features, but often they are very important. To claim that they don't matter is breathtakingly ignorant - it's like claiming that Genesis is not the first book of the Bible or like denying the truth of the second law of thermodynamics or that AIDS is caused by micro-organisms. To anyone who has done any study of literature at all, someone who denies that tone matters immediately identifies himself or herself as not knowing what they are talking about. It's that elementary.
If we go around saying such ignorant things, we will look, well, ignorant, to many people whom we'd like to persuade of our views; we'll effectively trap ourselves in a ghetto where we talk only to each other; we'll systematically mislead ourselves about many important issues; and if we apply our dictum seriously we'll cut ourselves off from discussing important questions about what is conveyed by much of what we read or hear.
Tone does matter. It is part of meaning. When we talk about tone, we are talking those parts of language that convey affective meaning - specifically, we are talking about the attitude that the speaker or writer takes to the audience, including the nuances of what is being suggested to the audience about what attitudes it should take to the subject matter. Tone involves, for example, issues of irony, sarcasm, grimness, seriousness, comedy, iconoclasm, and on and on. If you don't "get" the tone of what you read or hear, you may totally misunderstand what is being conveyed. In the extreme, as when you fail to pick up irony or sarcasm, you may get precisely the opposite meaning to what is intended. Even in less extreme cases, you may miss out on much of the meaning.
Think of tone of voice. If you are listening to a friend but cannot "read" her tone of voice, and have only her literal words to go on, you'll be missing out on a great deal of what she is conveying to you - or what she would be conveying to you if you "got" it. The reality is that much of the meaning of ordinary spoken language is conveyed through tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language. If you "read" these innacurately, you'll get the wrong meaning, or an impoverished version of the meaning.
These elements don't exist in written language, though devices such as italics and scare quotes can capture some of their effect. Written language relies to a greater extent than spoken language on such features as the choice of linguistic register, the use of particular words that are rich in connotation, and the rhythms of the prose. These are, of course, also present in spoken language - they are very important in oratory - but in written language they become even more important, because there is no actual voice to back them up (we can't hear any literal tone of voice) and nor are they backed up by any facial expressions or body language. Good writers, though, have no difficulty conveying much of their meaning through the way they choose their language.
Thus, it's possible to adopt a light-hearted tone that suggests to the reader that what is being said is not be taken too seriously. It's possible to adopt a tone that suggests to the reader that it should be taken very seriously indeed. It's possible to suggest to the reader, without saying it explicitly, that something under discussion is absurd and so merits mockery, contempt, and rejection. It's possible to suggest that somebody who is being discussed is deserving of blame or hatred. And it's possible to suggest the opposite of these things. These aspects of what a writer is trying to convey will not usually be stated explicitly, but will be suggested by implication or by choice of language - by emotive words, prose rhythms, linguistic register and so on.
The good news is that competent writers of a natural language are very good at doing all this more or less unconsciously, though true masters of literary language are able to do it at a much higher level of intensity than the rest of us. The other bit of good news is that most of us have considerable skill in "decoding" these elements of language, and, again, we do it unconsciously. The bad news is that many people do, in fact, fail to "get" things that are conveyed in this way - as any English literature teacher quickly discovers if she delves into this territory with her students. Invariably, she'll find that some students are far more adept than others in picking up on how language conveys meaning in inexplicit ways.
Furthermore, even highly competent speakers of the relevant language can often end up in reasonable disagreement about what the tone of a particular passage was - was it meant to be taken straight, or was it more light-hearted, or was it sarcastic, or what? It can be difficult to settle arguments about this sort of thing, even in an English literature tutorial where the teacher may be much more experienced than the students and has a degree of legitimate authority.
It's also unfortunate that some people just are better at dealing with this than others, just as some people are better than others at picking up tone of voice, facial expression, and body language. It seems arrogant to tell someone that she doesn't "get" these things and to set yourself up as superior in "getting" them, but that's the world we live in. There are all these aspects of communication, some people are very comfortable with them, and with discussing them, and some people are less so.
Still, we have no practical choice but to communicate in these ways. In the context of the written word, we have no real choice but to convey much of our meaning through our selection of language and to receive much of the meaning of things that we read via the writer's selection of language. When we discuss the meaning of a prose piece (or even more so with a piece of poetry!) with someone else, we have no choice but to get into issues of language and tone, and to make attempts to show how one or other construal of the less explicit aspects of meaning is more plausible than others.
For example, part of the meaning of John Shook's piece in the Huffington Post the other day - a part conveyed by its scathing tone, which in turn arises from choices of words, from the rhythm of the prose and so on - is that certain unnamed people deserve our scorn for their ignorance and arrogance. Shook goes close to saying this explicitly, but he never goes quite that far. The further meaning in his piece is conveyed through the choice of language. We are entitled to say that Shook used scathing language of people who were unnamed but in a way that suggested he was talking about certain individuals who do not in fact deserve contempt or hostility, or whatever. That is a perfectly legitimate discussion to have. Leaving aside the literal meaning of what he said, we are entitled to discuss how certain choices of language make the piece sensationalist, inflammatory, and so on. We should not be cutting ourselves off from that discussion.
Part of the worry about discussing matters of tone, apart from the sheer slipperiness involved, the ambiguity of the data, and so on, may be a fear that we'll be constantly attacked for inappropriate hostility. Better, it might seem, if we can assert that this is irrelevant. But we really have no choice but to enter into arguments about whether and when hostility is actually expressed, when it is or is not actually appropriate, and so on. We are entitled to point out, for example, that Jerry Coyne's now-famous review of recent books by Ken Miller and Karl Giberson adopted a civil, thoughtful tone, and that any hostility conveyed was towards the ideas of the books, or certain of them, rather than to the authors personally. We can then complain, justifiably, if someone claims that such reviews should not be written. We can point out that there was nothing in the tone of the review that was inappropriate in the context, and that the complaint is really about Jerry Coyne's view of the actual arguments in the books. And so on.
We need to have these conversations, we can't avoid them, and there is no shortcut by which we can require our interlocutors to ignore tone and concentrate solely on the cogency of any arguments that are presented explicitly and seriously. Where such arguments exist, of course, their cogency is independent of the overall tone of a piece in which they are embedded. But that does not entail that the tone of the piece does not matter. It may matter in all sorts of ways.
I'm asking my readers to give up on this silly "tone doesn't matter" meme - if you have bought into it at all - and to squash it wherever it appears. The real point isn't to deny that tone matters; the point is to be able to discuss issues of tone with more sophistication than people who make crude allegations about it - so-called "tone trolls" who are too quick to make accusations of inappropriate hostility. We should be able to discuss how hostile a piece or English prose really seems to be, whether the degree of hostility shown really is inappropriate, and so on. We don't have to get caught up in foolish meta-arguments about whether tone even matters at all. Of course it does, and the argument that it doesn't is unwinnable in the wider world. Tone does matter. But we need not run away from arguments about it.