The Tone Argument

When I was in research science, nobody had yet identified the ‘tone argument.’  Nevertheless, I understood that it was irrelevant.  The value of somebody’s paper lay in the Materials and methods and Results sections, not in the Introduction and Discussion in which he (it was always he) disemboweled his competitors and colleagues.

There were counterexamples all around me — my major professor was the best-mannered, most-loved person in all of Canadian ichthyology — but I had been raised a nerd in a family of nerds, and I chose not to see them.  Data ought to matter more than manners, I maintained.  Sucking up to the audience was beneath any serious scientist.  So my transition into small-college teaching, especially a small women’s college still heavily informed by the worldview of an order of nuns, was rocky to say the least.  It seemed as if this new world was one big tone argument, where B.S. stated with a smile would win out over the unvarnished truth every time.  By the end of my third year, I was a thorough discontent.  I was, in fact, my character Linus Ukadnian (minus the beard).

Linus was a man with his feet on solid ground, a man in touch with the plain facts. And massaging the plain facts to flatter other people’s self-delusions was worse than a waste of time; it was a sin, a perversion of the intellect. He would have no truck with such rubbish, he told himself every morning as he trimmed his gray beard.

What brought this back into my mind was an article I read a few days ago about How to Develop a Trusted Senior Colleague, and a paragraph it contained advising the new faculty member to avoid just such persons as I was then.

Watch out for snakes in the nicely manicured grass of your new campus. Often the first people to befriend you are the most isolated and disgruntled. They are looking for a recruit to their toxic faction.

That stung, even after all these years!  Yet, had I read it at the time, I would have scorned it as politics, avoiding the more important issues of whether the malcontents were correct.

 Politics or not, though, it was already an understood rule during my early years.  I could not make the friends I wanted among entering faculty.  Still thrilled by the new job, none of them wanted to spend time with a mordant critic of the institution.
I was lucky enough to have a Trusted Senior Colleague even more mordant than myself, and this lent her credibility when she made the Tone Argument in a way I have never forgotten.  “Nobody wants to follow you,” she said, “because nobody wants to end up where you are.”

Nowadays, the Tone Argument is scorned as yet another tool of the oppressor.  Not only is your system making me miserable, but you want me to be polite in stating my outrage! Yet the advice my TSC gave me remains as true to human nature as it was twenty years ago.  I think about it every time I check my RSS aggregator and skim posts from blogs I used to read eagerly, because I have learned that any post from this blog will invite readers to go fuck themselves, one from that blog will tell them not to expect cookies, etc. etc.  Sure, these bloggers are probably speaking a lot of truth.  But I’m not happy following them, because I don’t want to end up where they are.

If only blog posts were conveniently divided into Materials and Methods, Results, Introduction and Discussion!

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