Why Stoics Shouldn’t Tone Police

IMAGE DESCRIPTION: A picture of the Earth (albeit a very badly-drawn one probably rife with inaccuracies) has on it somewhere a red icon of a generic person - symbolizing that we are inherently a part of a larger world. The world is shown against a black background representing the vastness of space - but with a few equally-badly-drawn stars in the background to remind us that, even in the Universe, we are not alone. This image is for articles in this blog that discuss Cosmopolitanism - a teaching, inherent to Stoicism, about our interconnectedness with the rest of the Universe.
Contrary to what an incomplete understanding would suggest, tone policing is contrary to Stoic philosophy. Here is why.
One criticism that may be levied on Stoicism by those who have an incomplete understanding of the philosophy is that it might condone tone policing. Tone policing is a term that refers to two specific behaviors that often go hand-in-hand. One of these is the tendency to dismiss grievances brought by someone on the basis of it being expressed in an emotionally-charged manner. The other is to shame the speaker (or attempt to shame the speaker) out of said display of emotion.

Some people might be concerned that Stoics might attempt to tone police because our teaching is that nothing external can be inherently good or inherently bad – and that therefore the external that someone complains about, no matter how important it is to do our best effort to redress, isn’t worth getting angry about. One might additionally be concerned that someone involved with an initiative such as the Philadelphia Stoa would be especially prone to tone police because, after all, one of our missions is to spread Stoicism in our city – and therefore the concern is that we might try to shame someone for not behaving in a Stoic manner.

Of course – I can offer no guarantee that a Stoic prokopton won’t tone police. First of all, early-stage students of the philosophy are more likely to have incomplete understandings of the philosophy – and even more advanced students, while getting ever-closer to perfection, never actually reach it. However, as for the question of whether or not Stoic philosophy demands tone policing, or even condones it, I believe that it is quite clear that the answer is a resounding “no”.

As for the first of these two behaviors – the off-hand dismissal of a grievance because it is presented in an emotionally-charged manner – the reason why that is incompatible with Stoicism is very easy to explain. It is an ad homenim fallacy. As a matter of fact, ad homenim fallacies have an entire sub-type called “ad homenim abusive” to refer to cases in which the ad homenim fallacy is invoked based on a trait of the speaker – which in the case of this tone policing behavior would be the emotionally-charged delivery of the grievences.

At any rate – ad homenim fallacies (as with any other fallacy) are things that a Stoic should be training to avoid. This means that a claim delivered in an emotionally charged manner should be investigated the same as any claim – and then accepted or rejected based on the evidence, not on the mannerism of the person making the claim.

As for the other tone-policing behavior – the effort to shame someone for the emotionally charged manner in which a grievance is expressed – that too is unbecoming of a Stoic. In this case, the reasoning why is a bit more nuanced and in-depth, but in the end, just as conclusive. In the Enchiridion of Epictetus, tone policing itself isn’t specifically addressed – however, the general way to approach someone expressing emotional pain over an external is indeed covered as follows:

When you see any one weeping for grief, either that his son has gone abroad, or that he has suffered in his affairs, take care not to be overcome by the apparent evil; but discriminate, and be ready to say, “What hurts this man is not this occurrence itself, — for another man might not be hurt by it, — but the view he chooses to take of it.” As far as conversation goes, however, do not disdain to accommodate yourself to him, and if need be, to groan with him. Take heed, however, not to groan inwardly too.
Enchiridion of Epictetus – Part 16 – Higginson translation

So there you have it. Epictetus counsels that we not only refrain from directly shaming someone who is expressing emotional pain over an external occurrence – but that as long as we can do so without reacting the same way internally, we should even go so far as to offer the external signs of sympathetic emotion.

But, of course, this article would be selling the reader short if the only reason given against this behavior is “because Epictetus says so”. After all – Stoicism isn’t a religion with a ton of intricate rules. It is a philosophy in which the specifics aught to be derived from the basic principles of the philosophy – and as such, it is important to discuss why Epictetus would say the kind of thing he is just quoted as having said. After all, some beginning Stoics might think that by doing this they are actually doing the victim of their tone policing a good turn by teaching them Stoic resilience that will help them in every situation in which they find themselves. The problem, however, is that they are not doing this, but are if anything doing the opposite.

In a very well-known cartoon describing tone policing (albeit far from being the best explanation) one of the examples given of someone tone policing is someone who was telling the distressed party “You’ll catch more flies with honey than with vinegar”. What was wrong with someone saying that? Is it really that bad advice? No – it’s not bad advice at all. In fact it is very good advice — so good, in fact, that the person who was saying that should have followed that advice themself. But by stating that advice in such a manner at the moment of the other party’s grief, they already were failing to follow that advice themself.

If you are a serious student of Stoicism and find someone expressing grievance in an emotionally charged maner – start by realizing that while the emotional reaction to an external is erroneous according to our philosophy, it is nonetheless understandable. Even though our philosophy teaches that the inherent ethical value that the distressed party assigns to the external (the value of “good” or “bad”) isn’t real – the external itself to which they are assigning that value may very well be quite real.

Also remember that it is quite expected of the untrained mind, however erroneously, to assign ethical values to externals. Even we Stoics sometimes do so as well. True – we are never supposed to — but none of us are Sages. We just get closer and closer and closer to that perfection – never actually reaching it — and thus we, too, sometimes may slip-up and assign ethical values to externals, even though they are in fact indifferents. (I, myself, had a very exasprated reaction of which I am not proud the other day myself in the context of an online religious discussion.) Shaming us then, prokopton as we are, isn’t the best way to get us back on track — and it certainly isn’t the way to help a person expressing a grievance who may not even at present be a Stoic at all.

So how do you help them? First, you express acknowledgement of the externals on who’s account they are distressed. Even if the exact thing that they complain about turns out not to be real, there still could be (and probably is) a deeper issue that is really the external basis on account of which they are distressed. You can even help open them up to the deeper issue – but should take care only to do so in a tactful manner. They may even be better equipped to see this themself once they have reached the Stoic mindset from which greater objectivity is possible.

Once they have opened up about the external on who’s account they grieve, the are of which they are powerless – then it is time to begin opeining their eyes to where they do in fact have power. They can not control the fact that the racism that affects them exists – but they can control whether or not they properly do their part to oppose racism. The same applies if their situation has been affected by sexism, homophobia, transphobia, religious prejudice, or any of the other discriminatory biases that plague society. They may not be able to see relief from this dscriminatory bias in society in their lifetime – but gradually you can help them see how faithfully doing their part correctly in the struggle against injustice can be it’s own reward.

Eventually, the goal is that they see that by doing their part correctly in the struggle for a more just society, they gain in themselves progress toward virtue which is a greater good than the external benfits of which the discriminatory biases of society deprive them. This is what can potentially lead to them becoming Stoics themselves and learning to see that a virtuous will within themself (which includes the will to do themselves their part correctly in the struggle for a more just society, but is not limited to it) is the only true good — and that externals, be they preferred or dispreferred, are indifferent.

And what about cases when the external that they complain about isn’t even a social injustice at all? And especially what about those who are complaining precisely because of an advance in in social justice who’s validity they just don’t understand? You definitely don’t want to encourge anyone to be faithfully doing their part in a campaign against social justice. Ultimately, these people may even be beyond your ability to help at all (as could be anyone in a state of such emotional wreckage for that matter) – but you could at least attempt to help them deal with the deeper issue that is preventing them from being at peace in the face of the advance in social justice.

At either rate – if you encounter someone who is in an emotionally injured state on account of an external that they rightly or wrongly perceive to be a social injustice – shamng them is no way to go about helping them learn resilience, and is not the proper conduct of a Stoic — even if we do from time to time slip up and do exactly that anyway.

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