On tone policing and acceptable expressions of anger

I had planned for my next post to be a post about GenCon as a microcosm for the state of the gaming community. I wanted to write about the things that are giving me hope with regards to GenCon prep and the energy going into the convention, as well as some things that are giving me some trepidation and making me a bit nervous about venturing into a gamer space actually in person. And then life happened. Or rather, the internet happened to a real life thing and it sucked.

The drama, summarized

In a facebook group for a group of gamers who play games together in a consistent meatspace location, there was discussion of a game that was to be playtested that focused on a sensitive subject matter. English is not the first language of the designer, so predictably misunderstandings resulted. In response to these misunderstandings, a member of the group who is marginalized in a way that the game was attempting to explore, jumped directly to personal attacks – first on the designer and facilitator, and subsequently on the moderator of the group who own the space where the games are played. The marginalized person has also tried to get third parties from outside the group to join the group and shout down everyone who agrees with them. These third parties have also sent abusive messages to the female co-facilitator of the game (not even the designer!), which the female co-facilitator finds understandably upsetting and frightening.

TL;DR, there was a controversy and a marginalized person leaped straight to personal attacks and harassing behavior.

Get it? Got it? Good.

Moving on: the dilemma, and why it matters

So why am I writing about this and why should anyone outside of this particular group of people care? Simple. I discovered that I have a lot to say about acceptable expressions of anger versus unacceptable expressions of anger in response to perceived oppression.

Now before I get started, it’s important for me to acknowledge that I am a white middle-class able-bodied English-speaking cishet woman. So it’s easy to look at the above statement and hear “whoa, wundergeek is about engage in some grade A tone policing”. Which. No. Not even. Fuck tone policing right in the goddamn ear.

A lot of what I write here is angry. I refuse to censor my anger in an effort to gain acceptance for my arguments or to make people more comfortable with either my arguments or me as a person. Telling someone that they should talk to you calmly and unemotionally about the oppression that they are experiencing is the height of clueless privilege, and I will righteously tear down anyone who tries to claim otherwise.

HOWEVER, righteous anger about lived oppression IS NOT a blank check to retaliate in any way that you see fit. As an oppressed person, you can’t choose not to be oppressed. But you CAN choose how you choose to express your anger over that oppression. Is anger a powerful emotion that can lead us to make impulsive decisions? Absolutely! But there’s a reason why we don’t excuse murder or violence by saying “well I was angry”; learning how to deal with your anger in ways that don’t harm others is part of living in a civilized society – a skill that you are expected to possess in some capacity in order to be a functioning grown-ass human.

At the end of the day, the person you are lashing out against is still a fucking human being with hopes and dreams, aspirations and struggles, vulnerabilities and insecurities. Your anger about their complicity in systems of oppression that are harming you DOES NOT give you permission to harm them right back. Because guess what? WE ARE ALL COMPLICIT in systems of oppression. Every single one of us. It’s how society fucking works.

“But dammit, wundergeek. That sucks. Let me have my anger, okay, because it is righteous and totally justified!”

Again, I’m not telling you not to be angry or not to express anger, because that way lies tone policing. Instead, here are some ground rules:

Someone was a butthead and you are angry? Cool. How are you going to respond?

DO call out the offending party. Tell them why you are angry and how what they said or did reinforced the systems of oppression that cause you harm.

DO NOT jump straight to personal attacks without even attempting to have a conversation with the person you are angry at.

DO be open to the possibility that part of the inciting incident was a misunderstanding on your part. Human language is weird and imprecise and confusing, even when you’re communicating face-to-face. It’s orders of magnitude more difficult when you’re talking about online or other asynchronous communication, since you don’t have nonverbal social cues to add context to what is being said.

DO NOT use feminist theory as a personal attack to bully someone into being quiet when they are attempting to have a good faith conversation with you. If you don’t have time or bandwidth for the conversation, it is totally okay to say so! I get it. I do! I almost never engage in 101-level conversations because I don’t have the time or patience for them. But if someone is indicating that they are listening to you and you use feminist theory to tell them why they are a bad person and should feel bad about themselves, you are being an asshole.

DO use language that centers on “thing you did”or “the thing that you said”. 99% of the time, you will be angry about an inciting incident and not the totality of the other person as a human being – the sum of their dreams and thoughts and experiences. (And if you find that you are at that level of anger with someone, I would politely suggest that that’s not a healthy place to be.)

DO NOT attempt to win the argument through numbers or brute force by bringing in biased third parties who agree with your point of view. SERIOUSLY DON’T DO IT. That shit is straight up harassment and is NEVER FUCKING OKAY.

DO lean on friends, family, and other members of your support network for support and vent your frustrations. Safe spaces where you can express your hurt to trusted loved ones are important in order to stay sane.

DO NOT trash the person you are angry with to biased third parties with the understanding that these people will then tell the person you are angry with how awful they are. Regardless of who the abuse is coming from, that is harassment and you are the inciting party.

DO hold people accountable for harm that their words or actions have caused.

DO NOT insist on continuing a conversation when it is actively harming someone. I’m not saying that their guilty feeeeelings need to trump a real conversation – not in the slightest, because guilt and lived oppression are not even remotely equivalent. However, if a conversation escalates to the point where it is triggering someone’s mental health issues (say because of volume or unintended fallout or personal attacks) and you insist on continuing that conversation, that is not okay. If you find yourself in such a situation, back off and suggest a resumption of discussion once feelings have had a chance to cool.

DO remember to hold on to compassion even when angry. Is it hard? Sure. But we’re humans – we are capable of feeling conflicting emotions. Embrace that capacity and use it.


DO remember to consider the context of the situation when deciding how to respond. Where did the inciting incident take place? How did it happen? Who was involved? What is the history of the people involved wrt your oppression? Are there reasons why you should be inclined to read/listen charitably?

In dealing with buttheads here on my blog, I’m often quite prone to not thinking of them as humans, because that just occupies too much bandwidth that they don’t deserve. Often, deleting their comments and replacing them with a sarcastic meme or male tears GIF suffices, and I move on with my life. But that level of dismissive pithiness would not be appropriate in a disagreement with someone in meatspace, and it would be especially inappropriate with someone I was closely connected to or someone that I knew had a proven history of trying not to be a butthead.

Of course, the existence of things like facebook groups for real-life groups of people complicates matters. Often it’s easy forget that the words on a screen attached to an icon are also attached to someone you are personally connected to in real life. Be conscious of that fact and choose your words with care, if you feel the need to tell people they are wrong on the internet.

Lastly, be aware of potential mitigating factors that might cause misunderstandings. Read and listen charitably, and ask for clarification when something bothers you. Returning to the actual incident that generated this post, if someone you know does not share a first language with you says something that you find harmful or offensive, it’s actually pretty damn likely that they were actually trying to say something different from the thing you took offense at. Attempting to converse in a language that is NOT your native language puts you at a significant disadvantage in any conversation; jumping straight from statement to personal attacks makes YOU the asshole because you are holding them to a standard that you know they aren’t capable of meeting.

15 thoughts on “On tone policing and acceptable expressions of anger

  1. Thanks for this. As a man trying to live up to feminist ideals, I often hesitate to engage because of fear of reprisal if I make mistakes. I’d rather stay quiet than accidentally say or ask something dumb or offensive. Many times this is a good thing – as my voice is probably overly present when I am speaking about something that I confidently understand, but it mixes terribly with groupthink and other dynamics. I.e. if I was in that facebook group, I might have opted out of the discussion rather than try to temper people’s anger out of fear of becoming the target.

    Even worse for me as an individual, it contributes to my impostor syndrome: where sometimes I feel like I’m just pretending to be a feminist while I’m secretly a chauvinist objectifying asshole on the inside. I’m pretty sure that’s not true, but I worry that if I get called out too strongly after making a mistake while trying to be genuinely NOT an asshole, I might not try to hard next time, because clearly I’m actually that asshole after all. This is probably more introspection than I intended on a blogger’s comment page, but I guess that’s how my brain works. =p

    • So here’s the deal. WRT the actual incident, I DID opt out of the conversation up to the point where it got actually abusive. I did not share the marginalization that was being discussed, while others in the group did, and didn’t feel it was my place to take up space in the conversation. I know that few things infuriate me more than when men take over a conversation about sexism on the internet and talk over all the not-men, so I stayed quiet.

      So sometimes, knowing how to ally well is knowing when to be quiet. It can suck, because you can have lots of strong feels, but learning to master the impulse to speak is important because sometimes your voice is not only not needed but actively detrimental.

      That said, for the most part feminist women (that I have interacted with at any rate) are going to be capable of distinguishing between a guy who is trying but is still learning and someone who is being sexist with malice and forethought. I understand the fear you have and sympathize with it, but that fear isn’t productive and can lead you to some toxic places. (Did you see this post? I encourage you to re-read even if you did.)

      If it helps, I am of the firm opinion that feminist IS NOT a noun – it is a verb. Something that you do and work toward. We do not ever get to say “I’ve done it – I’m a feminist. I have arrived at the place where I am a feminist and no longer need to work on myself”. Because there’s always more work to be done. Feminism is a process, not a person or a place, and that applies to everyone regardless of gender.

    • You cannot be a feminist, as you are male. You CAN however, STFU when women are talking. Or, even… STAND UP for women when they are not present and men are spewing misogyny. OH NO, A TARGET? Welcome to our world. I am regularly harassed and threatened with rape and death. You will NEVER experience the terror of living among violent males as a female person. Lastly, I am sure you use porn (I doubt I am wrong) and porn users hate women. Men who hate women are not our allies. Finally: What a long-winded Narcissistic comment. Typical.

      • You cannot be a feminist, as you are male.

        Not everybody defines “feminist” in a way that starts with “you have to be a woman.” Feminism is a set of beliefs and actions having to do with the rights of women and the equality of the sexes; anybody who believes those things and takes those actions is a feminist.

      • First, as Marie has said, not everyone believes that being female is a prerequisite for calling yourself a feminist. I know men who self-identify as allies because they feel that it isn’t their place to call themselves feminists, and I support them in that identification. But I also support men who call themselves feminists, because as Marie says – feminism is about a belief in equality.

        Second, this blog is MY space and it is a space that men are welcome to speak in, so long as they are respectful, on-point, and don’t make the conversation. It is also a space where I do not tolerate personal attacks on myself or other commenters. In other words, my space my rules. And this space is not the sort of radfem space that tells men they have to be silent, as long as they are following the rules and generally not being buttheads.

        • In retrospect, my post is indeed pretty narcissistic. I read wundergeek’s post and saw how it related to my experience and my life and wanted to talk about it. A more outward-gazing person would have first considered how other people feel. *shrug*

          I did purposely say I “try to live up to feminist ideals” rather than just brand myself feminist, for exactly the reasons Yisheng mentioned. Thanks wundergeek for allowing this kind of discourse in your blog comments.

          I recently read an article called “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo, I think a lot of the lessons there could be translated to “Male Fragility”. I’ll go re-read that.

  2. Awww, I look forward to your GenCon posts. Anyway, I hope RL things worked out and didn’t impact your preparation for GenCon too much.

    • Thanks! I’ll see what I can manage to get done pre-con. My prep is mostly done at this point, thankfully. I’m just trying to tidy up tasks that need to get done before I leave.

  3. Spot on. Tone policing can eff right off, but being angry is not a blank check to be abusive and ugly to the person you have a problem with.

    I do have a question regarding using feminist theory as a “do not”. Do you have an example of this? The context I’m thinking of is 1. Person makes an offensive statement 2. Person 2 uses feminist theory to explain why the statement is offensive to others. Would this be what you are talking about? Or did I just miss the point completely?

    • Sure! It’s a bit of a fine distinction I’m drawing here.

      What I’m trying to get at is that it is vital to use “the thing you did/said” language and not “you are” language. (Again, props to Jay Smooth for his videos and giving me the language I needed to make this point.) Using feminist theory to explain to someone why something they did/said was problematic and oppressive? Double Fonzies. Proceed. Using feminist theory to tell someone that they are an oppressive fuckhead who should go die in a fire? NOT FUCKING COOL DON’T FUCKING DO THAT.

      So in practice, it would look something like “do you understand that what you just said is a classic case of victim-blaming?” and “what the fuck is wrong with you, you misogynist victim-blaming waste of space?”.

  4. learning how to deal with your anger in ways that don’t harm others is part of living in a civilized society – a skill that you are expected to possess in some capacity in order to be a functioning grown-ass human.

    Thank you for this. There was a stretch of time where the dominant strain of thought, at least in my corner of the internet, seemed to be “any behavior on the part of a marginalized person is justified by their marginalization,” and I’m glad to see pushback against that. Being angry: totally okay. Hurting other people with/because of your anger: not so much.

    • There is a tendency online to separate people into camps, and once they have been established as part of the enemy camp you then can do whatever you like to them – doxxing, harassment, bullying, whatever. If they’re the enemy, they can “objectively” proven to be bad people and thus will deserve whatever comes their way. Maybe it’s because you want to label that person a misogynist, or sex-negative, or a SJW. Whatever. It’s all about an us-versus-them mentality that causes people to dehumanize anyone in the “them” camp.

      And speaking as someone who frequently gets targeted as a “them”, that’s really fucked up and really not helpful. If it’s not okay when “they” do it, it shouldn’t be okay when “we” do it.

  5. What facebook group and, more importantly, what game?

    This knowledge vital for my research!

    • There many excellent reasons, most of which should be fairly obvious, for why I would choose to keep that information private. There are no good reasons why I should reverse that decision.

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