ARE THE TONE POLICE THE MODERN VERSION OF THE THOUGHT POLICE?
The weaponization of NVC is a topic I’ve been wanting to broach for, I dunno, probably twenty years already.
When I grew up, I’d heard the stories about the dreaded “thought police” many times from my emigre grandparents. They warned me not to take freedom of speech for granted. Unfortunately I hadn’t paid them much mind, and so I was pretty spooked when I started seeing them, an army of ghosts advancing a censorship nightmare across the land.
Left unguarded and untended for years, the hinges on the creaky old gates of “speaking freely” finally broke. Armed with their red pencils, the spectres of censorship started leaching through into even the most sanctified of spaces I run in. Suddenly, the tone police appeared in the midst of my own ritual gardens, and my intimate circles of family and friends. They were cloaking themselves in a glamour of “compassion,” and “nonviolence.” Yet still their agenda of control was apparent to me.
I felt compelled to speak up about what was happening.
But how? And where?
CANCEL CULTURE AND WOKE
Given the hack-and-slash wilderness that surrounds social media these days, I didn’t wanna go there. Who in their right mind would seek understanding in that deep dark wood, where the state of discourse is so degenerate that doxing and social media death are deemed appropriate treatments for even the slightest deviation from the currenty woke politically correct “woke” stance? I didn’t wanna do it.
But I was so outraged, I wasn’t really in my right mind. I dragged my fire-breathing over to the laptop, and did the unthinkable. Fingers bleeding, I clawed my way up the modern social media podium, and went on a little Facebook rant.
I braced myself for some woke potshots and sucker punches.
But quite to my surprise, everybody was playing nicely. Hundreds of posts later, I found actually found some rare sportsmanship! Some really great dialogue came of it, and I think we all learned a ton.
ON SASS AND SELF-CENSORSHIP
I’ve always been conditioned to blog in an “agreeable” tone of voice, to pluck and shave and preen the language until not a hair is out of place. But over the last decade, a huge part of my life has been that I have become an outspoken advocate for expression of big emotions like grief and rage (in my professional work as grief tender, and as a writer on this blog, for example), I realize I’m just sick and tired of boiling what I have to say down into a tasteless mush.
The rendering into mass palatability usually sacrifices both the flavor, and the nutrients. And I could not rightly claim the title of griefworker while watering down my objections into a weak brew that really says nothing.
I decided, purposefully, to maintain a fresh, sassy and raw tone in this piece. To include more spontaneity and an off-the-cuff style.
So I share with you, my original post in its naked form, just as nature intended. You can visit the original Facebook Post to explore some of the ample commentary. Please enjoy, be nourished, and let’s continue a deliciously, spicy and honest dialogue.
Friends, let me know if this has happened to you:
You’re in a conversation, and you’re getting upset. Something is really important to you, and it just isn’t getting through. Your heart is pounding, your speech and facial expressions are getting more animated. You’re still not being heard, and you’re starting to get hot under the collar. The corners of your mouth are tensing up, and you’re starting to raise your voice.
At that point, the person (or people) you’re in conversation with suddenly announces that they refuse to listen to you. Not because of the content of what you’re sharing, but because you are “too emotional”, or “too angry,” or “too loud.”
Annoying, right? Frustrating as hell, right? Just when you’re getting to the crux of things, someone pulls the rip cord, and shuts the conversation down.
The person who bailed could have made a different choice. To recognize the presence of emotion as a clue that important things are close at hand. To understand that storminess indicates that it’s more important than ever to hear you out. To remember that right now, compassion is shown by listening carefully.
But instead, a judgement is passed, you’re disqualified as “impolite,” or even “violent,” and it’s over.
Okay, okay, I can hear the “buts” and “whatifs” already. Of course, taking potshots and hitting below the belt is counterproductive. And I agree that no one should have to tolerate outright violence or aggression. If real violence is actually occurring, then you have every right to bail out.
However, I want to pose a few questions, here:
•Since when is passionate debate tantamount to violence?
•Who gets to make the rules and regulations of “non-violent” communication, anyways?
•How, if we expect conversations to remain always calm and comfortable, will we ever be able to tease out the tangly and divisive issues that we are facing, interpersonally, culturally, politically?
I was raised in a Jewish household, where hot and saucy wrangles appeared regularly at our dinner table. As the complex struggles of the day were spoken, heated debate was pretty much a given. So it actually baffles me when folks wilt at the slightest temperature change in discourse.
Do we really want to enable a culture where people are so fragile, that we can’t handle some spirited arguments?
Gimme a friggin’ break.From Facebook post, March 30th, 2023
And my colorful Jewish family is not the only cultural context where a sassier conversational style is the norm. I’ve heard lots of complaints (and rage!) over the years, for example from Italians, Latinos & Black folks, about the intolerable stuffiness and blandness that is demanded through “tone policing.”
The rage is justified.
When regulation of speech, instead of listening, becomes our focus, communication is the casualty.
When regulation of speech, instead of listening, becomes our focus, communication is the casualty.
C’mon. I KNOW some of you know what I’m talking about.
In the circles I run in, we are increasingly hearing the call for “non-violent,” or “compassionate” communication to govern our spaces. Which, on face value, seem great. Who would vote against compassion, for goddessakes? And there is nothing wrong with trying to hold some basic agreements for entering hard conversations.
Like: breathe. check your judgements. be kind. be respectful. (not an exhaustive list…)
But can we stop for a minute and consider the cultural contexts which are advocating and enforcing these so-called “communication” methods? And how they are in reality being practiced? Because, time and time again, I’ve seen them used to block communication, instead of facilitate it. I’ve seen them break up the solidarity and healing which is trying to emerge THROUGH the conflict.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t stifling conversation the exact opposite of what we are going for here?
I’ve seen non-violent communication used to silence folks, instead of drawing them out.
I’ve seen it used as a strategy for policing the language of impassioned people, instead of a strategy for listening to impassioned people.
This is violent. Full stop.
In my experience, it’s precisely these impassioned people that often have the most healing and change-making potential to offer the conversation. NOT the folks who have calmly and rationally laid out their arguments.
The very fact that they are impassioned indicates that we are approaching the event horizon–the moment of understanding and the gorgeously messy possibility of transformation.
Passions will especially rise up in folks who don’t come from cultures whose main priority is to “remain calm and visibly unmoved at all times.”
Plus, working class folks may have no specific relationship with fancy methodologies, don’t have the time, don’t have the money (and frankly, don’t give a shit) to take communication workshops and trainings anyways.
As a good friend recently said to me, “N V –what?”
(She’s a supremely loving, kind, working-class woman of color, nearly 50 years old, and has never heard of the NVC that some praise so highly.)
I’m a big fuck-no to this intolerant BS.
It’s assumptive. It’s racist. It’s classist.
And I will not be silenced.
The confusing and convoluted terrain of cultural healing we are treading upon these days is going to require us to get creative and innovative. To stay open.
And to get down and dirty sometimes.
A list of agreements may offer us some sense of control over the situation. But, when we are talking about the hard stuff, people are gonna lose control. People are gonna get mad. People are gonna freak out. And we are gonna have to develop the strength, the moxie, to listen to them ANYWAYS.
If we are to ever have a chance to truly hear one another, we cannot decry “violence!” and “harm!” the minute things heat up.
I guess it’s no accident that a huge part of my work in the world is to make space–a helluva lot more space–for the big feelings like grief and rage. Modern society has suppressed these (generative, and useful!) emotions for generations, and compressed the range of tolerance to such a narrow band, as to render “acceptable conversation” virtually useless.
Building our muscle for clemency in discourse, our ability to persevere through the storms of intensity, is just so, so incredibly important. Otherwise, unexpressed views are going to sneak up on us, our relationships are going to go sideways, fast, and the polarizing will get worse. This cannot be overstated, dangit!!!
SO….yes, this is a call for us all to stop being so wimpy in conversations, and actually inhabit the values of resilience, patience, open-mindedness and inclusivity that we pay so much lip service to. Only then will we be able to truly claim that our communication is “non-violent” and “compassionate.”
Mercy. Mercy me.
Thank you for listening. Let me know what you think.
I share this out of my love for humanity, and our belief in our ability to make it through these tough times. So please, be respectful, be kind. Fight fair. But don’t lose your passion and your spice.