Sunday, April 06, 2008

Part III: Tone Filters

Someone linked over to the Daily Howler – Glenn Reynolds, perhaps – and I dropped by for that one essay. For some reason I had in my mind that this was a flame-throwing conservative site. Wrongo. It’s a flame-throwing liberal site. McCain and Obama were being criticized in the essay, so I didn’t get tipped off to my error right away. That combo could occur on either a conservative or liberal site, yes? Oh very yes.

I thought the tone of the essay was a bit insulting and unfair - That’s a little over-the-top, Mac. Yet I was able to read along without particular annoyance, browsing for information or insight. As it dawned on me that this was a progressive site, the tone distracted me more, and I eventually stopped reading.

I was able to perceive the tone, but could filter it out when I thought it was directed at others. Once I knew that the tone was directed to folks like me, the snarkiness was too much. From listening to people live and reading their arguments for years, I suspect I may be on the good side of the bell curve for evenhandedness. I think many people get so used to talking within their own group that they don’t even hear the nastiness directed to others anymore. They believe they or their comrades are being critical, but not unfairly so, and certainly not insulting. A good test is observing whether their own tone fed back to them offends. Conservatives who spend much time in the presence of liberals are puzzled that phrasings and tones of voice clearly calculated to offend pass unnoticed by the speakers.

Screwtape is apposite again
In civilised life domestic hatred usually expresses itself by saying things which would appear quite harmless on paper (the words are not offensive) but in such a voice, or at such a moment, that they are not far short of a blow in the face. To keep this game up you and Glubose must see to it that each of these two fools has a sort of double standard. Your patient must demand that all his own utterances are to be taken at their face value and judged simply on the actual words, while at the same time judging all his mother's utterances with the fullest and most oversensitive interpretation of the tone and the context and the suspected intention. She must be encouraged to do the same to him. Hence from every quarrel they can both go away convinced, or very nearly convinced, that they are quite innocent. You know the kind of thing: "I simply ask her what time dinner will be and she flies into a temper." Once this habit is well established you have the delightful situation of a human saying things with the express purpose of offending and yet having a grievance when offence is taken.

A gentleman named Gary Galles has already done up the section of Screwtape with a slight rewording to illustrate how this is in politics

I have heard that tone shooting out from the conservative end of the spectrum toward the progressive end at times, but far less often. I have little doubt there are professions or churches or cultures where conservatives are in such predominance that the tone deteriorates unnoticed. When folks believe they are alone with their own they become less cautious, freer with their sneers. I recall standing on the street with a Mormon friend when other friends of his came up. As their comments about non-Mormons intensified, I could feel his discomfort and embarrassment – they had wrongly assumed that I was one of them and revealed themselves more than they wished (they were less nasty than social workers, BTW). It is always interesting to see behind the curtain.

What intrigues me about these tone-filters is that they are apparently automatic.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Are those tone filters automatic or axiomatic?