Tone, emotional range, character

If you’d asked me ten years ago what I thought of the importance of tone when discussing contentious politics, I would have rated it low-to-non-important, this largely being down to having been tone-trolled by folks arguing in bad faith. Some people do have a tendency to expect you tread on eggshells around them, if only to distract you from what you’re actually trying to say.

“It’s the validity of the argument and the truth of the premises wot matters!”

If you’re only interested in the truth of a specific proposition, then okay, fine. But what if you’re interested in more?

Say you’re in the union movement and the prospect of a demarcation dispute with another union raises its head; you ask “Comrade, do you think X is the demarcation criterion we should be using to sort this out?” and get an answer in the affirmative. What does this tell you? Say you spool things out to have a discussion of why a given demarcation criterion is appropriate, and your interlocutor is on-point on all of the details. You absolutely agree on all the technical details.

Perhaps you bring an appreciation of social ques and historical context to this conversation. Perhaps they’re not telling you what they really think. Perhaps they do believe what they’ve told you, but are holding back that these details are actually irrelevant to their plans.

Maybe there’s no question of ideological trustworthiness, and you just want to make sure you’re both on the same page, or that you can campaign together from the same office. Perhaps the social ques and the historical context point to a healthy, stable solidarity. It could be that the tonal differences between bluster and genuine affection are what settles things and allows you to focus on the work.

It’s easy to take an appreciation of tone and character for granted, but it gets a lot harder to parse it all if your appreciation of tone is deprecated.


Over the last seven years, I’ve run into people who’ve had a pretty rough time participating in political discussions online, who’ve subsequently fallen into deep depressions. Blocking and withdrawing has been the order of the day, and seemingly with a relatively high error level; erring on the side of caution while realizing rightfully they don’t owe strangers their time.

But what about what they themselves are owed? The right to be healthy and aspire to happiness takes more than just being able to brush off abusers and trolls. What if, owing to an acquired tone-deafness, one lost the ability to tell the difference between passive-aggressive concern trolls, and genuinely caring individuals with valid criticisms? Or the difference between someone willing to offer moral support, and someone just looking to establish their base by flattering vulnerable people? Wouldn’t that be a bit isolating – unhealthily so?

“I’m happy to have a small, select circle, thanks! I don’t need to keep my enemies that close.”

Well, maybe. Maybe you’re due a break, and it’s not like you earn 4 weeks paid leave arguing on Twitter. You don’t need my permission to walk away.

Still, I’ve been seeing people adhering to crude, tone-deaf, by-rote heuristics to work out who is and who isn’t a bad actor; seeing people of good faith being turned aside, and seeing a number of those doing the turning aside winding up even more miserable for reasons they can’t begin to articulate. Worst case scenario; I’ve seen someone clearly isolate themselves this way, then blame the people they’ve turned away for making them do it.


A lack of range in your emotional capacity can do this. The numbness of depression can beget self-neglect. Self-neglect can beget further depression. It helps to have trusted people around you to help prevent this from spiraling out of control, and for that you’re probably going to have to put up with at least a little political disagreement.

Which brings us back to the matter of how to know who you can trust, and how tone helps.


A friend and I were musing the other week about two guys with a couple of very similar radical left sensibilities; sensibilities that friend and I regard as problematic. Two guys with the same particular tribes, much the same particular ideations, and to some extent even the same incoherence and inconsistencies. But independent of each other, friend and I decided that we regard their character as immensely different, such that one stands out as clearly more trustworthy.

There’s no particular political transgression that sets them stand apart. A crude, political dot-point heuristic couldn’t possibly clear things up; they’re both equally on-point with their political tribes. And yet, one of them would easily be welcome at a dinner party among like-minded(ish) friends, while the other is regarded as more than a little suspect.

One guy is clearly driven by empathy and good intentions, erring on the side of sappiness, while the other seems to have more pride invested in his tribalism, resulting in what passes as a mildly venomous smugness. Both will make the same dismissals, but while one will appeal to what he sees as people’s better nature, the other will lace his assertions with subtle backhandedness, and deliver them with a not so subtle sniff.

It also helps that it’s clear – at least to those of us familiar with their tone – that one of them is both warmer and more capable of uttering the words “I think I may have made a mistake.”

There’s something to be said for having political disagreements with people you can trust – for one they serve as a check should you turn out to be wrong. Potentially this serves as a check on self-harm. So if your criteria for allowing social proximity is a reduced, narrow list of marginal political differences, well, that’s a bit daunting. And what’s it like for a political community, or a family with politically contentious advocacy needs, if most of the adults therein are isolated like this?

“You’re expecting ethnic minorities to sit down and sup with white supremacists? To never punch a fascist!?! That’s the politics of civility!”

No. I’m not expecting that. Obviously.

For the most part we’re talking narcissism of small differences level disagreements here, not overt, intentional political hostility; fine-grained disagreements about ontology or epistemology; arguments over the merits of deontology versus utilitarianism; concerns over to what extent functions of a mutually supported organization should be decentralized; differing perspectives born of differing material interests on what clauses of proposed legislation may have unintended consequences, and so on – all argued with what a healthy appreciation of tone would inform you is good faith, and what an appreciation of material, political reality would inform you is not being treated as an abstract, intellectual plaything.

If a democratic socialist can’t sit down for coffee with a social democrat to talk their differences over, then their problem isn’t political theory. Their problem is personal and it won’t be resolved or navigated through with the use of an ideological spot-check.

Tone and emotional range go a long way to helping here, and I was wrong to ever doubt it*. I for one am happier and healthier knowing this now.

~ Bruce

* PS. Neil, you were right.

The spokesperson and the punters

A number of years ago I attended a book launch by a local, self-published author with a disability. While I hadn’t known them for very long, being new to local writing communities, I wanted to see what was up, and on some level show support. At this juncture, I was still denying that inner voice that was telling me that something was wrong, and instead telling myself that the odd quirks and signs of passive aggression were not worthy of consideration.

So what? Some people are weird. Artists particularly, right?

Besides, if their work was serious enough to attract an arts grant in the first place, it couldn’t have been all that bad, could it? (Stop laughing.)

Initially I had a little trouble mentally digesting what I saw. Precisely nobody in attendance acted as if anything was untoward. There wasn’t so much as an awkward shuffle in a seat. And if there’s been a word of criticism voiced anywhere by anyone I saw in attendance, it’s been behind doors or somewhere else where us normies aren’t free ranging.

What resulted from this book launch I’d later incorporate, along with other displays of cynicism from local wannabe “activist” artists, into a mental architype of the cynical, neoliberal spokesperson who co-opts progressive language purely for marketing purposes.

“Nobody notices your artifice, or at least, if they do, they don’t want to be the only one who’s calling you on your shit – that’s a one way trip to lonely-town. ”

(‘Tricks in Neoliberal Culture #001: Affirming Values Through Compliments’, 2014)

It’s possibly worth noting that while this piece was well received among a number of friends in the “scene” at the time, aside from those I’ve confided in, all guesses as to who I was talking about have been wrong. People have assumed I was writing about an activist/artist that they just happen to hate. One activist/artist wrongly assumed that I was writing about them – although in that case I’ll take it as a confession. The truth is, the architype was a gestalt of a number of local artists/spokespersons; of both sexes, all middle-to-upper-middle class, all white, and all so incredibly vain.

But back to that book launch.

So, what would you expect from a book written by someone with a given disability, spruiked as the work of someone who was a spokesperson for others with that same disability? What would you expect if the point was made in the lead-up that said spokesperson had lead discussion in focus groups?

You’d expect discussion of the interests of that group of people, right?

Well, the book it turned out, was a memoir, and the perspectives of others with the disability in question – a disability known for its capacity to manifest different symptoms and difficulties from person to person – were completely absent. Moreover, the memoir made it clear that the author was actually living the good life; no economic hardship; good quality of life; excellent prognosis.

What policy exactly would one feel inclined to support after hearing this “advocacy”? Your guess is a good as mine. And probably as good as the guesses of all those folks in the focus groups who’s views weren’t represented in the final product.

Notably, the launch was presided over by a chap from the state government, who praised the author for the high quality of their advocacy work (without providing a single example of said work). You have take a bit of time out to consider what the guy’s interest was in all of this.

Serious advocacy for people with a given disability, by rights, should make people responsible for relevant government services at least a little anxious. Yet the content of the book, and all discussion at the launch, was completely absent of any discussion of government involvement, other than in its role in complimenting the author.

I’m not saying the bureaucrat should have been harangued or abused. There is, for example, no need for activists to call him names or leave a turd in his letterbox. But serious activism is going to raise questions that on some level people like him are going to feel uncomfortable with being raised, if only because it invites consideration of existing efforts.

If all advocacy consisted of such fluff as was on display at the launch – if it were all just solipsistic memoirs from people who are doing fine, actually – government would certainly have a much easier time.

“Hey, we’re cutting back disability services. Could you distract people by talking about what you name your socks again? Thanks! We love your advocacy work! Love, The Government.”

So no, there’s no salacious tale here. Just an anecdote about banal self-regard dressed up as disability activism, and the role and interests of state power in promoting it instead of discussion of actual, material problems.

This is a problem. Tell anyone who’s material issues are being distracted from on account of this kind of thing that it isn’t, and I hope they give you a serve.

Asking around those in more pro-active roles, revealed that it was a given that author was a flake. “Flake” was literally the word used. There was a repeated inference of “why bring it up? It’s so obvious. It’s no secret!”, as if author/spokesperson was a well-known running joke.

This was obviously true. It wasn’t a secret. And it’s not like I expect people to obsess over it either (if I did, I probably would have addressed it more directly, sooner, and then banged on about it ad infinitum).

I can’t fault people for laughing, and then getting on with their lives either.

Only, if you raised this issue with the rank and file members of a number of local writers groups, there’d be gasps, and silence, and people shocked at your audacity, and a whole heap of gossiping about you behind your back. How very well dare you?

Depending on which group you wind up in – some are better than others – you may very well be required to ignore the evidence of your eyes.

“Nothing is wrong! Why, there was even a man from the government saying it was all wonderful! Has a man from the government ever called you wonderful? No! *Sniff*”

There’s no master list of which writing groups to avoid, and arguably there shouldn’t be. But you have to feel, especially for the younger ones, those with a chest full of energy and a head full of good intentions, who go into these things not realizing the nature of the culture they’re immersing themselves into, only for them to find out the hard way.

Meanwhile, the self-regarding, disingenuous sorts remain an almost protected species.

~ Bruce