Tone vs. Content

Russell Blackford has a post arguing that tone is important, even if a lot of the things people say about tone are foolish:

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.

A lot of this is right. But it misses something important: the matters of “tone” that people tend to care most about are inseparable from issues of content. You can’t always separate what you say from how to say it. For example, I think that many self-styled experts on science and religion are really propagandists who regularly say things that can only be interpreted as outright lies or, at best expressions of inexcusable ignorance. I think that many religious teachings are as morally repugnant as those of Nazism, and these doctrines have very harmful effects on real-world human behavior. I think that much of what is said on religion is just an attempt to stop necessary discussions from happening in public.

These three sentences express content, thoughts I’ve had for a long time, not tones I choose to take on this particular occasion. They’re hard to read as anything but denunciations, though, and Blackford himself lists “denunciation” as a kind of tone. Simply by stating them in simple language, I’ve set myself up to be read as taking a certain tone, and there is very little I could do to change the perceived tone of those statements without changing the content.

A good writer can use euphemism, understatement, and a variety of other devices imply a conclusion without openly stating the impolite truth. I recognize that. It matters. As I pointed out in a previous post on dealing with liars, accusing someone of “egregiously misquoting” rather than “lying” in your book review might get them to link to your review and say what a nice review it was. However, whenever you decide to merely imply something out of politeness, you’ve changed the literal content of your message, so that’s not an example of separating form and tone. Describing the decision to state rather than imply as one of tone obscures the real decisions writers often face.

Better examples of tone of where tone in some purer form matters aren’t hard to find, for example, determining whether or not a statement was a joke, and what the point of the joke was, though that typically isn’t relevant to the science and religion discussions that breed the discussions of tone Blackford is talking about. There’s also the decision to throw in the extra “choice word” or two. It would be interesting to see an honest (i.e. no claiming “PZ called all believers fuckwits”) discussion of when a choice word or two makes sense. That’s more relevant here, but still doesn’t seem to be the main thing people are talking about when they talk about tone. So I’d be curious to hear from readers, what else they think worries of tone, as separated from content, might be about.


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