We often hear the argument that many men (and, indeed, many women) would be proponents of feminism if only feminists weren’t so hateful or antagonistic in their rhetoric. Tone policing is used to derail feminist arguments all the time–and for good reason, feminist debaters hate it. Jezebel has a good article detailing why it’s ridiculous, and numerous other authors have written about tone arguments and their history in feminist discourse, especially regarding their use in arguments against feminism.
On Mother’s Day, Daniel Pryor of The Back Bencher wrote an article entitled “Stop Alienating Men From Feminism,” in which he called upon feminists to watch their tone when criticizing patriarchal attitudes and behaviors lest they alienate men who would otherwise be sympathetic to feminism and women’s movements. Pryor describes himself in the article as a libertarian feminist and a feminist ally, but takes issue with the often-confrontational nature of feminist discussion. While he makes many valid points in his article, his petition still boils down to the same sort of tone-policing drivel that feminists have been taking issue with for decades.
The easy rebuttal to Pryor’s argument about tone is of course this: if more opponents of feminism would take feminist arguments at face value, and look at them more critically, there would be little issue with tone. Yes, a negative tone is off-putting and sometimes offensive, but a rational person would not factor the tone in which an argument is presented into the decision of whether or not the argument is valid. Furthermore, the reason a lot of feminist rhetoric takes on a harsh tone is because of its long history of being ignored, overlooked and outright dismissed. It’s hard not to be bitter after centuries of oppression, after all.
Here’s what’s wrong with that reasoning, though: people often don’t behave rationally, and it’s undeniable that a harsh tone will frequently garner a negative response. It may not always be easy to do, but if we can maintain a polite and civil, hospitable tone while we elegantly dismantle the patriarchy, we’ll be all the more successful and popular in our efforts.
I’m all about being a pragmatic strategist. This means that regardless of what should be or what is right and what is wrong, I believe in playing into the actual conditions in existence. I think the wisest and most clever of people are those who avoid focusing on the ideals of a situation and instead hone in on the factors actually and presently at play in society and the world. I try to emulate that approach myself when problem-solving. I believe in employing what works above all else, regardless of how the solution looks.
The fact is, it’s ridiculous to complain that feminist arguments are too harshly-phrased and too antagonistic in tone for men to get behind. But, also important is the fact that irrational men’s rights advocates and other opponents of feminism will not get behind a movement if they feel it’s alienating, regardless of how reasonable the actual arguments are. It would be a grave mistake to discount the significant amount of people who can be won over with kind words and an encouraging rhetoric, regardless of whether we shouldn’t have to do so in order to be taken seriously.
To complain of being tone-policed, yet maintain an alienating tone “because they should be listening to my argument instead of my tone” is to give people too much credit as objective decision-makers, and is detrimental to one’s own cause. It just makes sense to approach feminism from a firm and fearless, but friendly and welcoming perspective, even on issues like rape –something every person has a right to be angry and militant about.
One of the biggest problems with the way people view feminism is that it appears (thanks in large part to media portrayal) as undiplomatic, always on the offense. Feminists are frequently, and justifiably, outspoken activists who demand change in the way society treats the oppressed — but what many feminists forget is that the best way to overcome wayward opposition and ignorance is with hospitality.
Some feminists argue that redefining women’s issues such as rape as a “men’s issue” is problematic and a “cop-out;” because it appeals to men, and the interests thereof, in a way that is patriarchal and antithetical to a movement focused on women and their issues.This is a naive stance to take, particularly because appealing to men is not only effective, but desirable. We want men to take our side, and we want men to understand why we care about the issues we care about. If this means talking about how women’s issues relate to men and how they affect men, by all means we should be overwhelmingly supportive of these efforts –but not at the expense of women and a focus on them. It doesn’t matter how it works as long as it does the job. And in today’s climate, where we’re desperately working to end the mistreatment and marginalization of women the world over, an effective solution to the problem couldn’t come sooner.
In a world where Shailene Woodley is afraid to call herself a feminist because she “love[s] men,” we cannot afford to let the image of feminism continue to be one of misandry and bitter resentment, though that idea couldn’t be further from the truth. Every wise marketer knows that PR is essential, and feminism’s PR is frequently marred by the idea that feminists are angry, hateful women who want nothing more than to malign men and install a matriarchy in their place. I cannot emphasize enough how much this image is not the fault of feminists — even those who choose to employ stern verbiage in their rhetoric — but the truth is that we will never overcome this perception if we do not first make it clear that we want men to be our allies, and that we need their help.
The difficulty in avoiding an antagonistic tone, especially when it comes to serious issues, is not to be minimized. It’s not easy to be civil about something like sexual assault, and some might even argue that one shouldn’t be. But again, this isn’t about what should be or shouldn’t be, it’s about what works. And while a stern tone can be effective, what will almost certainly work better when it comes to convincing the very people you’re talking about (for example, men, in the case of sexual assault, because they are the primary perpetrators) is a calm, confident, positive, and encouraging tone that reminds men that though there is room for improvement, they have the power to do better, and have every reason to.
The fact will always be that regardless of what movements and causes are “right” and are worth fighting for, what most people are going to defend are causes that serve themselves. And if a man sees nothing in feminism that serves himself, there is little reason for him to support it. It is important to play into the interests of ally groups when seeking support for a cause. Men need to be encouraged to support feminism, and this can be achieved in part by staying positive about their involvement, and maintaining that with a little effort, they can improve.
Of tone policing, it is often said, “If you tread on someone’s toes, and they tell you to get off, then get off their toes. Don’t tell them to ‘ask nicely.’” And this is certainly correct. But the wisest move strategically would be for the person with the tread-upon toes to ask nicely before there is cause to demand a kinder petition. Pryor may be a tone-policer, but he’s got the right idea — and we’re not listening out of spite toward the millions of men who ignore our pleas in the name of “alienation.” If feminists are to make our case and be persuasive, we’ve got to do it diplomatically.