Concern for effective rhetoric versus tone-policing

This notion will hopefully strike most of you as obvious, but how we express ourselves matters, at least if you care for being heard. The examples you choose to make a point, and the style in which you deliver that point, can mark you out as either interested in discussion/persuasion, or as simply wanting to show your interlocutor that she is wrong.

I don’t mean to deny that sometimes, people are simply wrong, and there’s nothing you can do to help them be less wrong, so exasperation is both fully warranted and also no less effective than any other style of intervention.

But it seems to me that more and more, antagonists in debate are leaping straight to caricaturing both their opponents and, unfortunately, themselves, when debating the standard hot-button issues of race, religion and so forth.

Think about terms like “regressive left” or “social justice warrior”. There’s no question that some elements of “the left” are regressive, and that some so-called “social justice warriors” are incoherent hypocrites.

Despite this, you still send a very different signal about yourself when you use those labels, in that doing so can’t help but mark you out as being politically more aligned with the sorts of people who sneer at “political correctness” (PC), forgetting that the concept of PC – even if sometimes abused – can simply be shorthand for “treating people with respect“.

A concern for tone is, in some circles (particularly within a subset of the eternally-warring skeptic/atheist community), quickly labelled an informal logical fallacy. The idea is that tone-policing ignores the substance of the argument in favour of concern for its presentation, and that it thus acts as a kind of ad hominem (you speak nasty, so you are wrong).

Yes, of course this can be (and often is) fallacious. But as with many of these informal fallacies, people can be too quick to throw a label like “tone policing” around, when it isn’t a good fit. If I criticise the tone of, for example, Richard Dawkins on Twitter, it’s not necessarily the case that I’m saying he’s wrong.

I’m just saying he won’t be heard, or that his message won’t be accurately interpreted, if he chooses to express himself in certain ways.

Just as with the “fallacy fallacy“, where people think they’ve picked up a fallacy and then use that as an excuse to stop listening to you, we can mistakenly use tone as an excuse to ignore what someone is saying.

But as much as that is a problem, it’s also a problem if you’re oblivious to the rhetorical efficacy of one communication strategy over another. See this piece about Sam Harris as an example – it makes some good points, which few people are reading thanks to someone having chosen a stupid headline.

These comments are prompted in large part by the fact that it’s Easter, so we’re going to see the usual unnecessary and unhelpful snarks at religious people, especially on social media.

Yes, religious folks believe things that are almost certainly false. Yes, some people use their religious views to justify evil deeds, etc. We all know this. And we also know that for most religious people, the false beliefs are harmless, and don’t provoke or justify evil deeds.

The false beliefs are to my mind a problem nonetheless, but it’s not a problem we’re going to solve by pointing fingers and laughing. If you’re in South Africa, pick up a copy of the Mail&Guardian today, which includes a column from me on this topic.

Religion isn’t going away anytime soon. In fact, it appears to be growing, with the proportion of those who identify as “nones” (unaffiliated to any religion) shrinking. This is contrary to what many of us have been expecting the trend to be, and I think that part of the answer is quite simple – our “value proposition” isn’t well thought-through.

Part of what drives people to religion is community, a feeling of having access support, and a kind of human mattering. If we want secular humanism to grow, we need to offer that, rather than just a negative view of what religions do.

Happy Easter to those of you who are having a religious holiday, and to the rest of you, I hope you have a good break.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.