Competing Tone Wars

It occurred to me, as I perused the blogs in autism land and came across various skirmishes, that much of the time what we have going on is competing tone wars, where the substance is not as important as the tone or words a person uses.

Intent is irrelevant to some of the people who engage in what look like knock-down drag-out fights from the outside. Tone is more important. We have parents and professionals very huffily telling autistic persons and parents that they need to use person-first language, ignoring any message the individuals writing are trying to convey. This pissiness over language is used to derail any conversation and reduce the credibility of the individuals using autistic first; it puffs up the person who chastises the language use (in their own minds, anyway) and they use this argument about person-first language to assert their superior knowledge over every one else.

It's not just autism-land, though (and I can imagine people huffing over that term, autism-land). Harriet Hall last week at Science-Based Medicine wrote about gender differences and questioned in a comment someone's use of queer as being not mainstream in usage and potentially offensive; she was chastised roundly for not keeping proficient in the language that the LBGTQ community uses, when a simple heads up that it was no longer necessarily offensive would have sufficed.

When we get bogged down in focusing on tone rather than intent, we miss the opportunity to get anywhere. It becomes about showing who's the authority and therefore superior rather than about being a dialogue between equals.

Between equals. There's the rub. With all the need to check our privilege, it appears that equality is a fiction. It's "Harrison Bergeron" all over again. We must all be handicapped to the lowest common denominator--huh--wonder if that's the trolls out there?

Let's hope not. Let's hope that we can, instead of being fixated on literal equality, be focused on each other's equal value. I know, it's asking a lot because the reality is we don't really believe that, are conditioned not to, engage each day in little ways that add up in making sure we comment on others so that they are put in their place and we are elevated to what we believe our place is.

We feel superior to the people who appear on the People of Walmart site, for example. Some of us aspire to getting on it for the sheer kicks of it, but let's be bluntly honest--we mock others who are different--from abundant women who use tank tops as tops and skirts and women who manage to lose subway poles in their butt cracks as they lean against the support pole to jackasses who set themselves on fire trying to pull off a dumb ass prank. Reality tv is all about comparing. Those New Jersey housewives surely realize, as should Honey Boo-Boo's family, that they are the objects of ridicule?

Ridicule. It's such an amazingly effective way of deflating others, of shutting down exchanges.

Next best is pity. Feeling sorry for someone else, especially the way that pity is conveyed online, is about contempt.

So what about those who are the angry voices in the online autism world? Should their tone dismiss their argument before the content is ever considered?

Often these angry voices are engaged in a pitched battle with a world that is hostile towards them. They have been backed into a corner too many times and the fight mode of fight-or-flight is engaged. Forget about flight--that time has passed.

No more: that sentiment is behind the anger. No more. No longer.

Can you blame them? They have been abused, bullied, pushed and pulled and prodded and told they are defective and in need of a cure. They have been told to talk nice, play nice, and that their tone means they won't be listened to, not until they behave right and play the game.

These angry voices are voices that need to be heard. Their tone is as important as their message. To take away from the anti-vaccine crowd and their co-opting of the canary symbol, they are our canaries--our early warning call. Their tone matters.

It conveys the urgency and the underlying pain of their experience of being marginalized. That pain and frustration can only grow with each subsequent tone argument, pat on the head, and 'yeah, but' that they hear.

And yet...it is not just their tone we must listen to. Tone and intent go hand in hand. We must consider both. Both are valid. Tone can convey an emotional reality that people may not have the words for, whether they are autistic or not.

But we can't stop at tone. My children often have no idea of how they sound or how they can be, through tone, conveying disrespect, hostility or anger when those are not even on their radar. I have to move past the tone and look for intent. What are they really trying to communicate? Ah, but it flips when they are hurting, physically and emotionally, and then I must look to tone and not the actual words used, especially when it is a physical hurt and they do not have the language skills to convey what they are feeling.

Each of us grapples with this every single day: tone and intent. We are constantly trying to read other people. We often get it wrong. We project our mood and emotional state onto others' intent. We read too far into words or not far enough. We misread nonverbal communication or don't notice it.

We are such busy people. Our internal reality is busy trying to keep us afloat, navigate the sensory environment that is built and designed to overwhelm us (sensory issues are widespread and common in both autistics and their BAPpy relatives), the emotional undercurrents continually flowing around us, and the external world and what is the intent behind other people's tones and words: it's no surprise communication is fraught with difficulty.

It's a wonder we ever do connect, we ever do get through to each other. It's a blessing and a gift when we are understood and accepted, and it is entirely too rare an experience for all of us, but especially those who are on the autism spectrum or who have another neurological difference.

Rather than shh-ing each other about our tone, maybe we can shh ourselves and really try to hear the other's message to us.

Let's avoid, however, that silly mirroring technique that conveys a shallow vapidness. Let's really listen and then show by our actions that we really hear the other person. That doesn't mean giving in and changing, necessarily, but maybe it does. Maybe we are wrong and we do need to man up and own it.

The best and most important trait we can cultivate is humility--real humility--the recognition that we are flawed and that's okay. We don't have to be perfect. We just have to be willing to do better when we realize we've blown it.


farmwifetwo said...

When the Supreme Court of Canada says that tone and intent matter this past week... then they should learn to modify their tone. Sorry, there's no such thing as free speech in Canada.

When the Prov of Ont puts in legislation that says "thou can be fired if one does not modify one's tone".... then they should learn to modify their tone.

You can't claim the need for respect when you then claim you don't have to offer the same respect in return.

Social skills matter and they can be taught. It has nothing to do with "curing" but with learning to be given and giving in return respect to others.

Thing is... outside of the online world that hasn't actually grown any nor have the voices changed and the message has gotten stale... nobody listens anyways.

Dixie Redmond said...

You said so many good things in this, Kim. I have been busy (!!!) with life but also busy sorting through so many sometimes competing ideas.

An aside, I am having a very hard time reading the white on dark purple...I had to highlight the text and paste into a different window. And maybe that's a bit of a metaphor for communicating. ;-) I'm trying to read your words but can't see them for the contrast. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and writing.

K Wombles said...

Thanks, Dixie. Made it darker, to increase the contrast. Let me know if that made it better or worse.