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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Tone. Need I say more?

The tone of a passage of text is part of the meaning that it conveys. That's about the first thing you learn in English 101, and it's the reason why tone is important. As a one-time English lit. teacher, I wince every time I see the suggestion - usually from commenters in the blogosphere, not so much in actual blog posts - that tone just doesn't matter. It really does.

One of the things that people coming to university straight from high school have usually not picked up is the whole concept of tone, although it's not actually that difficult. It's analogous to the tone of voice that you adopt in oral communication, which conveys not just a lot of affective content, i.e. the emotions you are feeling, but also your attitude to the listener. Your tone may be conspiratorial, inviting the listener to plot and plan with you. It may suggest that the listener treat what you are saying as a joke, or as irony or sarcasm. It may communicate anger at the listener, or it may invite her to share your anger with a third party. It may suggest that you hold your listeners in contempt, or that you respect them (even if you are disagreeing about something). It may express amusement or exultation, and invite a friend to join in. And so on. It's a very important part of communication.

In face-to-face communication, much of this is conveyed by literal tone of voice - which can be cashed out more reductively in terms such as volume, pitch, pacing, intonation and emphasis, and the like. Some of it is conveyed by facial expressions, another part by gestures/body language. All these combine to carry much information to the hearer about how you regard him or her, how you want your words to be taken, how you are encouraging him or her to feel or act. In many circumstances, this might even be more important than the literal words, as they would appear if transcribed (if I am speaking to someone I love, the most important message of all for her to understand may well be that I'm speaking to her lovingly).

Of course, literal tone of voice, facial expressions, and gestures/body language are all missing in written communications. However, skilled users of the language (whichever language it is) are able to convey much the same information through register, vocabulary, prose rhythms, and style. Skilled readers are able to use these cues to pick up the information, some of which may be quite subtle (sometimes so subtle that two equally skilled readers may disagree as to what actually is being conveyed ... and sometimes that's because of deliberate ambiguity on the part of the writer).

Unfortunately, some writers and some readers are much more skilled at this than others. In a standard English literature course, you will invariably encounter writers who are masters at it. But students are not always masters - if you actually teach literature, press for detailed responses to a passage of prose or verse, and maybe mark essays, you'll discover that a lot of otherwise-intelligent people are not all that good at picking up on the tone even of relatively simple texts, especially if these are from earlier historical eras. Talking about these aspects intelligently is not easy at all; and most people, when they can, avoid saying anything too detailed.

Much of what goes on in a university Eng. lit. course is all about reading complex texts, trying to develop some sensitivity to the less literal apects of what they convey, and learning to write about this intelligently, and to debate it. (Lit. students please take note.) There are real skills to be learned here, and I bristle at the notion that it's all bullshit, or that this kind of literary training imparts nothing of substance. It imparts a great deal of knowledge, and it opens up capacities for understanding and enjoyment of our heritage of drama, poetry, and prose narrative. Not to mention a heightened sensitivity to elements of everyday communication.

So, forgive me when I'm unamused each time that I read something about how tone is unimportant, or that comments about tone are ipso facto beside the point, or that they're some kind of mumbo jumbo. Some kind of fraud. That's not the case at all.

Of course, there may well be a sense in which, in a particular context, tone does not matter. If I offer a formal argument for some proposition, complete with premises and conclusion, it doesn't matter if I adopt language (or, in a face-to-face discussion, provide other cues) that suggests I think you're a fool. No, that's wrong. It does matter, perhaps in more than one respect, that I'm conveying information about what I think of you ... but it doesn't matter in this respect: It Doesn't Affect The Cogency Of My Argument.

If someone complains about the tone of one of my posts, I am entitled to respond that this goes nowhere towards showing that any argument in my post lacks cogency, or that any conclusion I've drawn is false. And yet, I took the tone that I did for a reason. My choice of vocabulary, my prose rhythms, and so on - all the elements that add up to "tone" - are conveying something important about how I feel about my readers, how I'm inviting them to think or feel about others (or themselves) and so on. The tone I chose to adopt will have consequences: some people may be amused, others may be hurt; the general tone of a larger cultural conversation in which I'm involved will be affected to some degree, perhaps making it easier for people to get along, perhaps making it harder; particular third parties may be affected if I've managed to insinuate certain attitudes towards them.

The tone that people take with each other, and their perceptions of tone, are not trivial. They can make or break relationships.

For these sorts of reasons, intelligent discussion of tone is always in order. The problem is likely to be that a lot of discussion of tone is just not very intelligent - how many reviews of The God Delusion have you read that show a tin ear for Dawkins' control of tone? Many reviews don't show any sensitivity at all for the varied tones: the humour; the quiet thoughtfulness and introspection; or the comical intoxication with language itself in Dawkins' famous denunciation of the Old Testament deity. Generally speaking, the reviewers just don't "get" it. But the cure for that isn't less discussion of Dawkins' tone; it's more intelligent discussion of Dawkins' tone. A hackneyed adjective such as "strident" doesn't cut the mustard.

To say that intelligent discussion of tone is always in order is not to accept that the tone of political, scientific, or philosophical discussion should always be calm and respectful. There's plenty of room for passion, mockery, and outright denunciation. Not all the time, perhaps, but in their place. Some things deserve to be denounced or mocked, and sometimes it's necessary to use these elements of language to bring home the essential implausibility or even absurdity of a position. Someone who can adjust forever to logical arguments, in the process moving to a wildly implausible but internally consistent position - may well be shaken into seeing how the whole thing looks from the outside.

Complaints about tone can be misguided, as in this link, and they sometimes seem like attempts to evade other matters to do with the cogency of arguments or the correctness (or plausibility) of conclusions. But again, discussions of tone should not written off as automatically illegitimate or intellectually bogus. Rather, the point is to insist that discussions of tone be intelligent and that judgments about tone be relevant to matters at hand.

If, for example, you think the widespread adoption of a particular kind of tone - say, a denunciatory or mocking tone - is poisoning debate ... well, you need to show that this tone really is widespread, you need to be able to define the tone of your examples with some precision, you need to show the links between them that you claim to see, and perhaps much else. And you need to put your own plausible argument about why the effects you foresee will occur, as opposed to the effects that the writers concerned may have in mind.

Tone matters, but dumb complaints about tone are, as they say, Not Helping. They don't make progress.

If you want to talk about tone, go ahead, but try to say something intelligent about it.


GTChristie said...

I'm going to link to this and share it. It's a bit sad when the finer nuances of writing such as tone must be defended like an endangered species, but your point needs stating and it's a pleasure to see someone not only making the point, but making the argument so gracefully. Thank you. Both of my many friends and my only fan will love this. LOL.

GTChristie said...

A moment's meditation:
To exercise one's sensitivity to tone in written language, just for fun, cogitate upon the difference between "damning with faint praise" and "feinting with damned praise."

To detect the difference, one must read between the lines.

Mark Jones said...

Excellent post. I liked its tone, too :-).

So, how does this relate to the complaints that 'accommodationists' have about the 'new atheists'? I think there are at least two problems with those complaints:

1) They are asking writers and commenters to avoid using a tone, not particularly well-defined, which they've decided is counter-productive, without *actually* demonstrating that it is. So, for example, they may be objecting to a 'snarky' tone. But it's not clear that *sometimes* a snarky tone may be productive in a debate. They need to provide good evidence that it is, if that's what they contend.

2) If we are to allow an embargo on some particular tone, it should be noted that accommodationists themselves use potentially objectionable tone in may of their comments against new atheists, and others, so much of what they say would have to be sugar-coated before delivery. For example, Massimo Pigliucci, who doesn't like the tone of the new atheists, was himself accused of being too sarcastic in tone by Carlin Romano. So who is to be the grand arbiter of tone? Better, surely, to let tone look after itself in the marketplace of free ideas, and allow folk to interpret pieces with all tone included.

I suppose the one proviso here is if one could show that a particular tone incited violence. I'm not sure that's possible (I think words are needed for that), but I will stand corrected if someone can demonstrate that.

Glendon Mellow said...

Wonderfully lucid post, Russell.

In the visual arts, tone (or style or manner) is an essential consideration. The subject matter could just as well be presented in an essay, and the artistic form is a choice.

Painting someone's portrait in high realism conveys different things than painting them an Impressionist style. Both matter as much as whose portrait is being painted.

Aesthetic choices matter.

Deepak Shetty said...

"usually from commenters in the blogosphere, not so much in actual blog posts - that tone just doesn't matter. It really does."
I think that atleast some of the people do not deny that tone matters , the position they have is
a. How effective a particular tone is especially a reasoned / polite tone v/s a contemptuous/arrogant one to make the same argument.
b. The specific stance that if someone is turned of by tone when fact based matters are discussed , they don't care too much about what that someone thinks anyway.

which isn't the same as saying tone doesn't matter.

Brian said...

What you describe as tone seems to be covered by what one of my critical thinking books terms implicature.

DM said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
David said...

Hey DM,

Do the world a favor and insert a curling iron into your rectum.

But do it with a nice tone.

Russell Blackford said...

Troll gone!

Blake Stacey said...

The problem is likely to be that a lot of discussion of tone is just not very intelligent


Deepak Shetty said...

Now Id love to see what an effective tone should be in a response to DM.

josef said...

In the absence of a substantive objection, tone always tends to materialize as something which is wrong with a speaker, and I always view this with suspicion.

I recall the movie Changeling, where a woman was given a child that was not her son. She became very upset with the LAPD for this, and insisted they had made a mistake. She gets thrown in a mental institution.

Later in court, with the LAPD tries to defend their decision, they cite her 'erratic behavior', when all the while she was substantively right and they had no meaningful response to the issue that they had given her the wrong child.

I think whenever a person is wrong in any dispute, they are likely to feel upset, and to attribute their being upset to the person who disagrees with them and even characterize the whole discourse not in terms of them being wrong or challenged, but in terms of a "tone" that is objectionable.

I think lots of Christians are doing this with the New Atheists, and that there is a trickle-over effect found in accommodationists who want for there to be a middle ground.

Russell Blackford said...

Tone, schmone - DM just gets zapped.

josef said...

DM is a fan of Russell Blackford and also Alonzo Fyfe. If I can find out where else he's trolling I'll probably discover some great new atheist bloggers.

Russell Blackford said...

He writes to everyone - some just have more capacity to filter him out, or else they use comment moderation (which I'm loath to do as it creates inconvenience all round).

386sx said...

Tone, schmone

There we go. Even the best succumb to temptation sometimes! We are only human after all...

NewEnglandBob said...

Is this tone wrong too:


The truth should be unvarnished, even if it hurts.

Russell Blackford said...

NEB, who are you addressing in your comment? Your comment doesn't seem to be responive to the points in my post, which called for more intelligent discussion of tone, not for saying someone's tone is "wrong". Are you addressing one of the commenters?

NewEnglandBob said...

Russell, I am addressing accommodationism and anyone who says that discussions MUST be handled gently and deferentially. I also feel that content is more important than tone. In face-to-face communication, I have been accused of having an angry tone when people mistake passion and enthusiasm for anger.

Russell Blackford said...

Oh, okay. But I didn't notice anyone taking that line on this thread. I certainly didn't in the original post. Your comment seemed kind of out of left field.

J. J. Ramsey said...

"Russell, I am addressing accommodationism and anyone who says that discussions MUST be handled gently and deferentially."

And which accommodationists are we talking about? Chris Mooney is not John Wilkins, who is not Eugenie Scott, either. If we are talking about the latter two, then we are talking about people who, on the one hand, are fairly gentle to those who are willing to accommodate their beliefs to the science, such as theistic evolutionists, and on the other hand, take a hard line against outright creationists and even mock their leaders. Their tone is not uniform.

BTW, I've noticed that those who go out of their way to be rude are more prone to, ahem, adjust their perception of reality to justify their rudeness. For example, to justify calling DeDora a "witless wanker," PZ Myers misread him in a way that is almost (?) willfully dishonest. Anger can be a useful emotion, but too much emphasis on it can corrupt.

Anonymous said...

Russell, I have been one to forget tone at times, or convey the wrong tone by accident in static posts. Though, I do believe some have applied a tone to my views that doesn't exist in the text or within me - it does happen and these days I must shrug and move along as life has become too short to re establish my deliberate tone over something mis-toned

In fiction the general modern feel that I have seen if almost a flatness of tone - not monotone, though there can be best sellers in this area - but more a tone that runs the inoffensive angle rather than trying to convey strong feeling and responses to the text.

Now tone in text debate is always questionable and good debate aims at the more neutral tone so as to deliver solid argument without emotive justifications. This is regardless of who is debating and what the subject is.

When I discuss Christianity with atheists (considering all my writerly friends are atheists this is often - but not religious in content) I do not see myself as some kind of accomodationalist - why not say hippie and be done with it? nor do I see them as new atheists. Our tone is neutral and open.

Now snarky or off handed commentary regardless of tone does no benefit everyone, it is designed to dismiss at least one person - this is not clever use of tone, nor is it of any benefit to the arguments being put forth.

I have made reasonable argument for why religions may act in a particular way when faced with a particular problem only to have a commentator say 'but you believe in fairy stories' - regardless of the tone of such a comment, what did it offer? Did it advance the striving for common ground, the desire to mutually understand each other - No.

True, work on tone in your text discussions, but also address personal issues before applying the idea of 'the tone was missing' when being deliberately dismissive of someone.

Now, my tone here might seem a bit harsh and perhaps rightly so, as it does annoy me when people do want to enter into christian/atheist discussion on reasonable terms only to end up with something unwanted.

Now, onto another tone -- my abs

Robert N Stephenson

Unknown said...

i admit to being very guilty of the attitude indicated in the above post of having thought tone to be irrelevant issue in written arguments between two persons.
i am intrigue by this claim of an intelligent discussion to tone and would like an example (could you analyze one your post for tone) and highlight how a good discussion would follow?

Russell Blackford said...

Well, let me stress, as I said in the original post, that the tone of a passage is not relevant to the formal cogency of its arguments. Someone who confuses the two things is not discussing tone intelligently.

But think about Catherine Deveny recently being sacked from The Age for saying, on Twitter, "I hope Bindi Irwin gets laid." (She also made another remark that contributed to her sacking.)

Now, there are lots of things that might be said about Deveny's now-notorious tweet. E.g., it might be said that it was unfairly picking on an 11-y.o. girl. But what can't be said, by someone with an intelligent sense of tone, is that Deveny literally meant that she hoped 11-y.o. Bindi Irwin would have sexual intercourse with someone after the Logie Awards.

To understand the tweet you had to model the assumptions the speaker was making about her audience. She was addressing her Twitter followers as people who'd be alert to a non-literal, satirical meaning, to a pithy way of putting a point that would take a long time to nail down in expository prose, to a mordant wit, etc.

You have to imagine sitting watching the TV with Deveny, or sitting at the table with her, and a famous 11-y.o. girl walks past wearing a sexy outfit. You both, perhaps, share the idea that sexy outfits are not appropriate for girls that young. You're certainly both aware of the issue. Deveny looks at you in a certain way, and says, drily, somewhat disapprovingly, "I hope Bindi Irwin gets laid." Perhaps she reinforces the effect by rolling her eyes.

As a result, what she really communicates is a sort of half-amused, half-despairing disgust that such a young girl has been dressed up in such sexy clothes.

People who didn't "get it" have accused people who are trying to explain the above of merely rationalising, but I don't think that's remotely true. We're explaining the message that anyone reading Deveny's twitter feed, with the context of the Logies and a knowledge of Deveny's modus operandi, would have picked up.

The way she expressed the message doesn't make her argument against what she sees as the outrageous sexualisation of an 11-y.o. girl either more or less cogent. But the way she said it drove home her point that there was, as she perceived the situation, something ridiculous, and something creepy, about putting such clothes on someone so young. So there was a reason to say it the way she did (she was, of course, also restricted to 140 keystrokes).

Furthermore, in the aftermath of her sacking, the debate about whether she said something that was a sackable offence, etc., its's a good idea to have an intelligent understanding of what she was communicating and why she said it in the way she did.

Of course, Deveny didn't think all this through consciously at the time. It would have seemed a natural way for her to make her point. Nor did people who "got" it have to think all this through consciously. But we can't have an intelligent discussion of what she meant, whether she was justified in putting it that way, and so on, without being able to think through and talk about tone and related aspects of language.

Anonymous said...

Sorry Russell, people need to be responsible for their tweets and postings - for some reason you seem to think tone plays a part to this cognitive conclusion of meaning. Do you do this in order to make your argument work, or do you truly believe a 11 year old girl getting 'laid' is appropriate in any forum?

Even if the tonal representation was correct the idea isn't and I must say that I am a little surprised you support it...

let me put it this way for you - in a tweet between pedophiles in appropriate suggestions are made about a child. Now, applying the simple rule (yes I am using extreme views here) the tweet is appropriate because of the posters reading audience.

Now, I could have used simpler and less controversial subjects, but this one highlights the point I want to make.

What are you defending Russell? I was with you tonally until the last post

Russell Blackford said...

I thought the point was clear. You can't judge what a piece of text means unless you can judge whether it is intended ironically, angrily, straightforwardly, wryly ... or what. Tone is part of meaning. It's one thing to say that you disagree with my judgment of something's tone and therefore of its meaning. It's another to say that such judgments are bullshit, or mere rationalisation, or obfuscation, or whatever. You have to get over that.

That's a summary. If I could tell the whole story more succinctly than my long posts I wouldn't have gone to the trouble of writing long posts.