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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE and HUMANITY ENHANCED.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Watch your language (yes, tone matters)

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.

22 comments:

Kirth Gersen said...

Thank you. Someone has needed to say this for some time now -- I can't think of a better person to have written this.

I should hasten to add that, unlike the people telling us to always "be nice" and so on, I'm not at all averse to using a scathing tone occasionally when it's merited. There's a vast difference between being aware of one's tone and using it deliberately on the one hand, vs. blurting out everything as obnoxiously as possible as a default, on the other (a la "Comic Book Guy" on the Simpsons).

Anyway, great post, this -- one that I hope will generate a volume of discussion.

ColinGavaghan said...

Of course it does.

It's also incumbent on us - if we care about making ourselves understood - to realise that other people's 'tone receptors' may be tuned a little differently to our own. This doesn't mean that they are stupider than us, nor even less educated. It may merely mean that they have been subjected to certain experiences that have left them especially sensitive to certain implications, real or imagined.

Case in point: the reactions generated by the recent papal visit to Scotland, and specifically, the counter-reactions to the reactions, can't be understood without 'getting' the context in which it was located. I'll spare the history lesson (unless you really want it), but suffice to say that Roman Catholics, especially in the west of Scotland (where many Irish immigrants settled) have a particular sensitivity to prejudice and persecution.

How much of this is justified and how much exaggerated? Well, therein lies a debate we could have until doomsday. But the phenomenon of heightened sensitivity is undoubtedly real.

Without at least a rudimentary understanding of that sensitivity, those seeking to attack the Pope and the RC hierarchy were almost assured to end up insulting and alienating a whole lot of people who are not generally ill-disposed to atheism.

Of course, some of that 'collateral damage' may have been unavoidable, regardless of how the criticism was phrased; some Catholics identify so strongly with the papacy that any criticism of the latter - however justified - will be taken personally by the former (a bit like some Jewish folk do with the state of Israel, I guess).

But in general, an appreciation of tone and context might just have made it possible to really, clearly separate an attack on a hierarchy, or on an ideology, from a perceived attack on a(n already traditionally disadvantaged) group of people.

(Much the same could doubtless be said about attacks on Islam on various parts of northern England. The appropriation of secular concerns and language by the far right should be something we atheists - new or otherwise - should be aware of and concerned about.)

Josh Slocum said...

You're entirely right, Russell. Getting people to give this up (that is, people in the explicit atheist blogosphere) is going to be difficult. The "I'm an atheist but" crowd, as well as the constitutionally milquetoast, have seized on tone-based complaints to bludgeon those of us who say things they prefer we didn't say.

It's very dishonest, most of the time. The tone complainer isn't usually objecting to the tone in reality (though they assert that they are), they're objecting to the actual content. They think the actual content is horrible no good very bad, but they don't come right out and say that. Instead, they describe legitimate, reasonable criticism as "shrill," "unhelpful," and (my personal. .umm. .favorite) "inappropriate" in tone. Mooney's carping over Jerry Coyne's review in TNR is the archetypical example.

A subtype of this phenomenon is the complainant who objects to a harsh tone when a harsh tone is warranted. For example, it's perfectly appropriate (I might even say ethically required) to be *scathing* and acidic when figures like the Pope proclaim that atheists and secularism are rotting the western world. But the tone police come out and simper over it.

Many of us feel besieged at every discursive turn by the tone complaints, and are so fed up we automatically tune it out or deride it. That's understandable. It's also unfortunate, because you're right that one matters - obviously right.

But I don't rightly know how we can change this conversation until the milquetoasts and defenders of the status quo stop so consistently hijacking "tone" for their dishonest ends.

J.J.E. said...

This seemed very familiar for some reason. I looked it up, and found a similar discussion on Jerry's blog. This is what I had to say then. I agreed with Russell!

Rorschach said...

"Tone" is very undefined, in particular in the tone and accomodationism debate it matters what is meant by "tone", and in which context tone is seen to be of the wrong kind.Seems to me that you are leaving out the fact that the decrying of tone is most often nothing but the last stand of the religious or faitheist, their get-out-of-jail-free card for any occasion where their stupid arguments have been pulverised.

You say :

"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."

Well, what exactly does it matter, is it for aesthetical reasons, since you mention literature ? It sure doesn't change the truth value of a given statement, "Collingwood is going to lose" is exactly the same statement as "Collingwood is going to fucking lose".

In your analysis, I do think you are conflating nuances and non-verbal connotations of speech with what the people who accuse the gnu atheists mean by tone, which is really just the fact that you dare to speak up at all.

Robert N Stephenson said...

Tone in itself is an emotional connection made with the author through the written word. Often, when the author uses a moderate tone and ventures through emotional waters applying reasonable respect while not inadvertantly diluting the subject under discussion.

Some sometime argue poor word choice as tone when it is simply poor word choice and if you enter that argument it is simply wise to agree and move on - learn to examine word usuage more effectively and rephrase the point.

I for one disagree with atheists on issues that do not directly apply to the terms of belief, or lack thereof and in all matters I do try to be reasonable.

In any argument in regards to religion it is important to be specific about points rather than be general and use what has sometimes been seen, and commented on as a dismissive tone - the point of a discussion is engagement, if engagement in discussion is not part of the point then to get offended at someones question of tone does have atendency to be mute.

If I were to say 'Atheists lack a sense of compassion' this become by default an argumentative and even dismissive tone though the words in themselves are inoffensive. I am being generalist and alos unfair or even respectful of those who live this belief system.

Now I know many non religious belief and faith systems. I do not agree with them but I do not speask down to the belivers, nor do I try and convert them from what they feel comfortable with. My tone in discussion must remain neutral, which, when carried out effectively allows engagement and even cross polination of concepts and ideas.

Tone can mean the difference between being understood and accepted or being ignored and ridiculed. I hear everyday dismissives aimed at people and all manner of life understandings, and all I really get from these throw away comments is a deep sadness at just how ignorant a lot of pweople are.

Russell Blackford said...

Not really, Rorschach. I'm well aware of the point that you make in the first paragraph, that many people raise issues about tone when it might be more important to discuss the cogency of arguments. But that doesn't mean that issues about tone are unimportant. They can be enormously important - see Colins' comment for more on this. Still, I totally understand the point you're making, and I allude to tone trolls in the original post.

I define in detail what I mean by tone, and this is pretty much the standard meaning of the word.

Again, nothing I say means that all complaints about tone are justified. Many are not, as I point out. But many are, as with the complaints currently being made about the tone of the HuffPo piece by John Shook. Usually it is better to explain why they are or are not justified than to say, rhetorically, "Who cares about tone anyway?"

And, no, the meaning of "Collingwood is going to lose" is definitely not the same as "Collingwood is going to fucking lose." That's a very strange claim. The additional meaning added by the word "fucking" will depend on the context, but the two sentences definitely do not mean the same thing. For example, in one context, the latter might mean, "Collingwood is going to lose and I am glad of it." In another it might mean, "Collingwood is going to lose badly." In another it might mean, "Collingwood is going to lose and I want to bond with you in our mutual recognition of this." The word might turn the sentence from a neutral prediction into a taunt, an attempt at bonding, or something else again. That is a change in its meaning.

We convey these additional layers of meaning all the time by our selection of words (and also, in speech, by such means as literal tone of voice, body language, and facial expressions). Your example about Collingwood illustrates my point that the choice of language provides part of the meaning (and also the important point that choice of language interacts with context to produce meaning).

Robert said...

Hi Russ, just noted moderation enabled -- could have saved myself sometime if I'd seen that first. Oh well, be well.

Anonymous said...

DOH!

SC said...

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,

Heaven forbid they would sully themselves so! Must be the Gnu Plebs!

but I do see it from innumerable commenters all over the internet.

So...who, then? Not saying they don't exist or that it isn't a problem, but there're no links or context given. Hmm. Reminds me of something...

:)

Russell Blackford said...

SC, what does it remind you of? I said to the best of my ability exactly what it is - stray comments all over the internet. I don't even notice who says such things because it's seldom if ever anyone with a high profile.

I certainly didn't say something like "it is unnamed leaders of the atheist movement", which would make people think of specific individuals like Richard Dawkins. So I don't see how it could remind anyone of John Shook if that's what you had in mind.

I came across a clear example in an out-of the-way place yesterday and couldn't later remember where it was, or I'd have linked, even though it was only a comment. (I looked at many sites for different reasons yesterday.) But I also see such comments made from time to time in less out-of-the-way places like Butterflies and Wheels, Pharyngula, and Richard Dawkins' site. But, again, I made clear that I'm talking about comments that I see a lot. I have absolutely no idea what specific individuals have made such comments and I'm not attributing them to, say, Ophelia Benson or PZ Myers or Richard Dawkins - I'm talking about commenters.

Perhaps it's an illusion and such comments don't exist, but I don't think I'm discussing something that doesn't exist. If you disagree, fine. If so, you may even be correct and my post was a waste of time. But I have the strong impression that such comments do exist and are quite frequent.

My immediate inspiration this morning for making this post was some good stuff cited at Butterflies and Wheels praising rationalists who show passion. That's the spirit. I wanted to say that we are entitled to be passionate, funny, disrespectful, iconoclastic or whatever it may be. It's not that these things don't matter or that they should never be pointed out; it's that they can be perfectly justified. They can add value the message.

If someone accuses X of being disrespectful or hostile, or whatever, a good response may be to ask the someone exactly what shade of disrespect or hostility was shown to exactly what and exactly why it was not justified. The disrespect or hostility, or whatever, was presumably expressed for a purpose and it added something to the meaning, so it is legitimate to point it out. But it's also legitimate to ask why it's a bad thing in the instance concerned. Don't you agree?

Bruce Gorton said...

"Tone doesn't matter" is shorthand for "Wait, I am bringing up serious shit that I feel legitimately pissed off about, and you are more bothered by the fact that I am pissed off than about the serious shit?"

"You are seriously more bothered about how fucking enraged I am at the religious doing everything in their power to deny gays equal rights, than about the religious' stance on gay rights?

"It bugs you more that I passionately stand against the Catholic Church's handling of nuns and priests who abuse children, than the fact that the church was covering up for child abusers?

"Hell, it bugs you more than the fact that nuns and priests were abusing children?

"My angry tone when talking about it is really more off putting to you than American evangelical churches causing witch hunts in Nigeria?

"My sheer rage at human rights abuses across the Islamic world, including genital mutilation and what amounts to a sex slave trade in the form of child brides is more important to you, than those human rights abuses? Seriously?

"Hindus in India killing their kids for falling in love across the caste barrier is so minor to you, that me being angry about it outclasses that?

"English people having to fake being religious to get their kids into the state funded schools of their choice doesn't irritate you more than my irritated tone at reporting it?

"The continual recurring court battle to keep the religious from teaching American kids lies is so fucking minor to you, that me being annoyed at it is more important?"

"The fact that there is a major chunk of the population that doesn't even seem to care if what they believe is actually true disturbs you less than my tone in describing it?"

"Damn straight I am angry, and what the hell is wrong with you that you aren't too?"

Blake Stacey said...

Nice post.

As an aspiring paperback writer descended from a family of same, I appreciate a good study of "tone". Knowing how words work in the field is important stuff. Which is why I get all the more pissed off when people complain about "tone" as a way to say, "I'm right — and shut up, that's why!"

Russell Blackford said...

I can understand your point, Spencer, but isn't it more accurate to say, in such a case, "My [or the relevant person's] angry/hostile/disrespectful/whatever tone is justified"? It's not that tone doesn't matter. On the contrary, it may be a good thing to adopt an angry (or whatever) tone in many of these cases. So that's what we should say.

I'm certainly not advocating that we abandon anger, etc., when they're appropriate. On the contrary, I think we should say directly that they are appropriate (and perhaps say why if the context pushes in that direction).

SC said...

SC, what does it remind you of?

I had Plait in mind when I wrote that.

I said to the best of my ability exactly what it is - stray comments all over the internet. I don't even notice who says such things because it's seldom if ever anyone with a high profile.

But why do stray comments all over the internet warrant a lengthy didactic post? You certainly seem to be talking to your readers, as when you ask us to give up this silly meme, but you don't offer any examples of said meme, so I'm left confused.

I certainly didn't say something like "it is unnamed leaders of the atheist movement", which would make people think of specific individuals like Richard Dawkins.

I don't really care who it is. I would just like some of the "innumerable" examples so I can assess them in context.

But I also see such comments made from time to time in less out-of-the-way places like Butterflies and Wheels, Pharyngula, and Richard Dawkins' site.

Those are specific contexts, with - at least in the case of Pharyngula - specific community norms (and discussions on them are even more specific contexts). See, this is why context is important. I'm not denying the existence of random people making silly arguments, and wouldn't be at all surprised by it, but if you're posting this whole thing about it I'd like to know what you're talking about.

Perhaps it's an illusion and such comments don't exist, but I don't think I'm discussing something that doesn't exist.

If you disagree, fine. If so, you may even be correct and my post was a waste of time. But I have the strong impression that such comments do exist and are quite frequent.


This is a strange comment.

I wanted to say that we are entitled to be passionate, funny, disrespectful, iconoclastic or whatever it may be. It's not that these things don't matter or that they should never be pointed out; it's that they can be perfectly justified. They can add value the message.

That isn't what I took from your post, but who's arguing with it?

If someone accuses X of being disrespectful or hostile, or whatever, a good response may be to ask the someone exactly what shade of disrespect or hostility was shown to exactly what and exactly why it was not justified. The disrespect or hostility, or whatever, was presumably expressed for a purpose and it added something to the meaning, so it is legitimate to point it out. But it's also legitimate to ask why it's a bad thing in the instance concerned. Don't you agree?

I don't really see the connection of this to your post, to be honest.

And re the Shook piece: I found its content arrogant and infuriating - didn't really have to do with the tone. I think your points about it concern content as well.

SC said...

SC, what does it remind you of?

I had Plait in mind when I wrote that.

I said to the best of my ability exactly what it is - stray comments all over the internet. I don't even notice who says such things because it's seldom if ever anyone with a high profile.

But why do stray comments all over the internet warrant a lengthy didactic post? You certainly seem to be talking to your readers, as when you ask us to give up this silly meme, but you don't offer any examples of said meme, so I'm left confused.

I certainly didn't say something like "it is unnamed leaders of the atheist movement", which would make people think of specific individuals like Richard Dawkins.

I don't really care who it is. I would just like some of the "innumerable" examples so I can assess them in context.

But I also see such comments made from time to time in less out-of-the-way places like Butterflies and Wheels, Pharyngula, and Richard Dawkins' site.

Those are specific contexts, with - at least in the case of Pharyngula - specific community norms (and discussions on them are even more specific contexts). See, this is why context is important. I'm not denying the existence of random people making silly arguments, and wouldn't be at all surprised by it, but if you're posting this whole thing about it I'd like to know what you're talking about.

Perhaps it's an illusion and such comments don't exist, but I don't think I'm discussing something that doesn't exist.

If you disagree, fine. If so, you may even be correct and my post was a waste of time. But I have the strong impression that such comments do exist and are quite frequent.


This is a strange comment.

I wanted to say that we are entitled to be passionate, funny, disrespectful, iconoclastic or whatever it may be. It's not that these things don't matter or that they should never be pointed out; it's that they can be perfectly justified. They can add value the message.

That isn't what I took from your post, but who's arguing with it?

If someone accuses X of being disrespectful or hostile, or whatever, a good response may be to ask the someone exactly what shade of disrespect or hostility was shown to exactly what and exactly why it was not justified. The disrespect or hostility, or whatever, was presumably expressed for a purpose and it added something to the meaning, so it is legitimate to point it out. But it's also legitimate to ask why it's a bad thing in the instance concerned. Don't you agree?

I don't really see the connection of this to your post, to be honest.

And re the Shook piece: I found its content arrogant and infuriating - didn't really have to do with the tone. I think your points about it concern content as well.

J.J.E. said...

Russell & SC, my comment above is in the middle of a tone debate. The comments by "Kevin" in that thread are good examples of the kinds of comments I took Russell to be referring to.

Shatterface said...

To those who say tone doesn't matter, I say 'Yeah, right...'

If they spot my sarcasm I've rather proven my point.

Anonymous said...

Russell, you say:

> 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.… I don't know where the idea originally came from, …

The idea is quite common among people passionate about an issue, and atheists with a newfound voice are no exception.

It comes, I think, from “the truth value of my statement is of primary importance”, and a lack of empathy with someone who isn't examining the truth value of statements. That's not necessarily a general lack of empathy, but a lack of empathy with someone who isn't yet ready to examine truth value of these statements.

It seems to be tied up with a general lack of communication skill, which we can agree is depressingly common in discussion comments.

The commenter wants very much to express a point they feel is true, and they ignore the fact that tone will hugely affect whether their expression is effective communication.

Sometimes it's worse: people will deliberately make a statement that, examined dispassionately and ignoring tone, says only true things; but couch it in such vitriol that any reader who doesn't already agree will not even get to the point of examining its truth value.

The commenter then achieves two things: riling up their opposition, and “scoring a point” because the reader “obviously didn't read what was written”. This sort of pathological discussion is less common than simple ignorance of communication skills, but is still widespread.

Russell Blackford said...

My views about Shook do include tone - his HuffPo piece was scathing and inflammatory in ways that were not justified and did damage to his allies. I think that some of the language, in context, was positively reckless. This is the sort of thing that we should feel free to say, though of course it is always open to argument.

I didn't really follow the debate about Plait, who isn't all that much on my radar, but as I recall the problem was that he was saying something incredibly vague: "Don't be a dick." I have no idea what that means. I hope I haven't been that vague, myself, but if so mea culpa.

In Plait's case, I could have done with examples to clarify it, because "being a dick" could mean just about any behaviour that he disapproves of. They could be hypothetical examples; he wouldn't have to provide links or name names, just clarify the sort of behaviour he doesn't want me and others to indulge in.

In the Shook case, if someone objected to my saying that Shook was unjustifiably scathing and inflammatory by replying, "His tone doesn't matter!" that would be an example. Actually, one of the hundreds of comments I've read on Jerry's blog in the last few days did say something very like that, but it would take me ages to trawl through and find it.

The tone did matter. It conveyed that the unnamed atheist "leaders" deserve blame, contempt, our hostility, and so on, even though that was not said in so many words. I'd be more impressed by an argument that he was justified in conveying these things.

If Shook had simply said, preferably on a small in-house blog like this one, "Look, there's a widespread meme that 'theology doesn't matter' but it actually does matter for reasons X, Y, and Z," people could disagree, but no one (I hope) would have been terribly upset. But he did more than that, including choosing his words to be inflammatory.

In this case, I think Shook realises he kind of screwed up, though his various statements about it since involve an attempt not to admit it too explicitly. That's understandable - no one likes swallowing their pride and admitting unequivocally to having screwed up. I'm not that interested in kinda hounding him. I'm only using his case as an example of when discussions of tone (and other elements of language selection and non-explicit meaning) are worthwhile.

Robert N Stephenson said...

In many cases it is only athiests that seem to take themselves way too seriously...

recent reports on them knowing more about religion than religious folk is a clear case in point. Us Christians don't run about thinking we are know alls -- I can say in case, some not all, atheist encounters do give this impression of know all ism.

Tone is important when you need to get your emotional state in perspective -- tone is also the very thing that helps put your foot squarly up your own backside.

Trust me, I know about the latter

Bruce Gorton said...

Russel

On precision I agree with you - tone does matter.

It tells the reader what you figure is important and not important, as well as conveying what you think the appropriate response is.

But the trouble is that tone seems to be being, by the likes of Andrew Brown or Chris Mooney, taken as an excuse to totally dismiss real concerns.

So it is natural that people will argue that it doesn't matter - at least not in comparison to the concerns being raised.