Joshua Paling

Years ago, on the rules page of an online forum, I read something that stuck with me. "Play the ball, not the man". Here's an example of the former:

Hi Bob, I'd agree with your point A, but your point B contradicts C and D, which I outlined above. How can you reconcile the two?

Here's an example of the latter:

Hey Bob-a-job, you fuckstick, can you even FUCKING READ you idiot? Did your mum drop you on your head as a fucking baby? You've totally ignored points C and D. Your whole argument is fucking WORTHLESS. Srsly. People like you are the reason the world is so FUCKED UP.

Overall, although it's a close call, most would agree the former tone is more conducive to a good dialogue, and is more likely to set the conversation in a direction where both parties will get the best out of it.

I was re-reminded of this when reading the discussion following Jeff Atwood's recent blog post. I also recently came across the term tone policing. I guess some would dismiss the "play the ball not the person" argument as tone-policing.

Regarding tone-policing, the Geek Feiminism wiki states the following:

The tone argument is a form of derailment, or a red herring, because the tone of a statement is independent of the content of the statement in question, and calling attention to it distracts from the issue at hand.

I'd largely disagree. While the tone of a statement may theoretically be independent of the content, it's just not how we humans tend to take it in practice. Taking the "playing the person" example that I gave above, the recipient of that message is unlikely to say "wait a minute, let me first deconstruct this and separate the tone from the content". Maybe they should, but they won't.

It goes on to say:

Drawing attention to the tone rather than content of a statement can allow other parties to avoid engaging with sound arguments presented in that statement, thus undermining the original party's attempt to communicate and effectively shutting them down.

While it's true that "Drawing attention to the tone rather than content of a statement can allow other parties to avoid engaging with sound arguments presented in that statement", poor tone alone will do the same thing to itself, without having anyone draw attention to it.

I imagine most instances of tone-policing are intended to call the author's attention to the poor tone. The other readers usually don't need their attention called to it - the poor tone calls more than enough attention to itself.

Of course, it's grey scale. Pulling someone up on mild poor tone may well be a red herring. But pulling someone up on a post full of "fucks" and CAPSLOCK is a pretty fair call IMO.

Anyway, I think the whole moral zeitgeist will move forward more quickly if we play the ball not the person, and keep tone on the nice side of the spectrum.

If you disagree, fuck you. Kidding ;)