“People would listen to you more if you weren’t so angry!”
I hear this a lot. Or else it’s, “People just aren’t able to hear you because of your tone. I can’t share your stuff because they’d just tune you out.”
And then there’s the inevitable, “I liked you better when you weren’t so angry. Your whole platform is so negative now.”
These types of arguments are called tone policing, and I’d like to address it today.
For context in this article for those who are new, Rebecca is my daughter, and Keith is my husband. Rebecca is one of the co-authors on two of my books–The Great Sex Rescue and She Deserves Better, while Keith co-authored The Good Guy’s Guide to Great Sex. Both are frequently on the podcast.
Tone policing is a criticism that is lobbed at the method of communication, rather than the substance of that communication–often in an attempt to get the communication to stop.
Here’s how the Women in Philosophy blog of the American Philosophical Association explained tone policing:
At its core, tone-policing is first an argumentative move sideways and then a stall. It first shifts the focus from the content of the conversation to the tone, language, or manner of discussion.. and then – unlike other interventions about tone – policing announces that the shift cannot be reversed until tone is addressed. The tone-policer doesn’t just declare that their interlocutor’s tone is inappropriate and heightened (usually because it is too hostile, adversarial, or aggressive, upset, or irrational). They insist that the conversation cannot continue until the speaker adjusts it.
Exactly. This dynamic is difficult for us to deal with, because it shifts the focus away from talking about the actual substance of what we’re trying to address.
And so today I’d like to look at 6 reasons why the tone policing argument isn’t applicable to us, or should simply be discounted when it is made.
We’ll start with the tone policing arguments from those who are just plain anti everything we do:
1. “Your whole platform is negative! You never say anything nice about people!”
That’s not empirically true. Just go back through the podcast archives over the last few months and see so many guests I’ve had on because they’ve just written amazing books:
- Philip Payne and The Bible vs. Biblical Womanhood
- Zachary Wagner and Non-toxic Masculinity
- Jasmine Holmes and Never Cast Out
- Laura Anderson and When Religion Hurts You
- Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer with Pivot
- Naghmeh Panahi with I Didn’t Survive
- Lisa Swartz with Stained Glass Ceilings
- Terran Williams with How God Sees Women
And that’s just what I remember off the top of my head! And those books have been published by IVP, Zondervan, Broadman & Holdman, Tyndale, Baker, and more. I have featured people published by some of the biggest evangelical publishers, so one can hardly say that I criticize all evangelicals.
But when it comes to our best-selling marriage resources, yes, I am pretty much calling out all of them.
There are two possibilities then:
- I’m not objective, I’m just negative, and I want to take everything down so that I can be my own demi-god, run everyone else out of town, and take over the whole Christian industry; or
- Evangelical marriage books are built on faulty assumptions, and so they pretty much all share the same problems.
Number 1 can’t be true if I’m also highlighting so many amazing authors.
But just because I’m calling out pretty much all of our current crop of marriage books doesn’t mean I’m wrong; in fact, it’s more likely to be a sign that there actually is something strange going on.
And it’s that the underpinnings of the marriage books–gender role essentialism; gender hierarchy; a “male sexual needs” view of sex; and marriage preservation rather than the safety of people–infect pretty much all of our books to varying degrees, and leave us with unhealthy messages.
People don’t want to see this, because acknowledging that evangelicalism has really missed the boat and hurt people when it comes to marriage is hard to accept. But it doesn’t make it any less true.
Now let’s turn to people who actually do support our message, but are still tone policing.
2. When we’re the victims of tone policing, it’s often in a very gendered way.
Keith gets really, really worked up on the podcast. Just listen to his take down of John Piper in our podcast on the Danvers Series!. But he’s never called too angry. Only Rebecca and I are.
Keith is allowed to be angry; Rebecca and I are not.
As one commenter in our Patreon group noted,
Exactly. No mention of how Keith literally went off on Eggerichs. No mention of Andrew doing the same [on our recent podcast of Emerson Eggerichs]. But Sheila, OH MY, she gave exact quotes and even played audio and used his own words as the basis of discussion!
Keith gets quite angry quite often in the podcast, yet the most often insult against him is that he’s somehow wimpy–even as he’s slicing and dicing Piper’s arguments easily.
Why wimpy? Because Keith believes men and women are equal, rather than feeling that men should rule over women. He’s accused of being wimpy not because of his tone, but because the content of his argument means that he’s giving up power (seems like something Jesus would do?). And that’s what they don’t like.
Please, before you call Rebecca and me angry, ask yourself why it doesn’t bother you when Keith gets angry?
3. But Sheila, you’re not supposed to display anger! You should control your tone!
Here, for instance, is one comment that I received from a woman responding to the sexist part of tone policing (that she was only going after women):
I DO expect men to control their tone when speaking passionately depending on the circumstances and audience. Jesus flipping tables was a rare occurrence. If we are supposed to flip tables at every injustice I think we would have more recorded instances of Jesus doing that…We like the fact that Jesus flipped tables so when we lose it we can say Jesus did it too. But Jesus didn’t “lose it” he was in control and had righteous anger.
I find this a strange comment, given this:
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.”
“Woe to you, blind guides! You say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gold of the temple is bound by that oath.’ You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? You also say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gift on the altar is bound by that oath.’ You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred?”
And that’s just a portion of the passage! Jesus had no trouble calling out the religious leaders publicly for all to hear, and neither did Paul (who told off Peter to his face, in front of everyone, and then recorded the confrontation in a letter for posterity).
Jesus’ anger was not confined to flipping tables; He demonstrated it frequently, rebuking people in public repeatedly. This model was followed by the apostles when people were engaged in false teaching or in something damaging the witness of the gospel.
We think of Jesus as meek and mild, but He actually spoke up quite firmly about injustice, and it’s that that often drew people to Him. Anger against injustice doesn’t turn people away; it shows people that God cares.
4. “If you just changed how you talked, I could share this with my friends.”
Here’s how one follower explained her dilemma:
I have a friend who I sometimes want to share episodes with because I believe she would benefit. But this person is very sensitive – even TikTok skits that equally make fun of all political parties bother her.
Here’s the thing: Your friend may not hear it like this, but so, so many will. We won’t change what we say to accommodate your friend when we’re being very, very effective at what we do. If your friend won’t hear it, then find ways to say it differently to her! Or share something else. We don’t just have the podcast. We have one sheets. We have the toolkit. Yes, not everyone’s personality is the same. But we won’t calm down just because some people don’t like it.
Now, I can hear the love for her friend in her comment. She desperately wants her friend to hear, and feels like if we could say it in a different way, her friend may get it. I think that’s the root of what she’s saying: she thinks that if we can find the right words and the right tone, we can get through to her friend.
But that assumption may not be true. Remember–Jesus talks repeatedly about those “who have ears to hear.” It is not my job to make the message palatable to everyone. Jesus compares Himself to a sword that divides, to a stumbling block, and that’s what the message of Jesus is today to people as well. There is simply no way to make the message palatable to everyone because many do not have ears to hear.
This does not mean that we shouldn’t care about our delivery, or that being deliberately off-putting is okay. But anger at injustice is called for. And treating dehumanizing and oppressing messages as pathetic is exactly what is often needed to empower victims to stand up and refuse to take it anymore and get help.
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5. Being firm is not being mean
Another of the tone policing arguments I get is that we’re just mean. Indeed, some people even read my onesheets and say that I need to be nicer. The onesheets do not have emotion baked into them. They are simply statements combined with quotes from the books. They actually use academic language rather than emotional language.
If people think these are hateful, then they don’t actually have a problem with hate; they have a problem with anything that is firm coming from a woman.
And that indeed is the definition of tone policing.
One woman changed her mind about male authority in marriage based on our writings, and here’s how she described the situation:
I wonder if the firmness and compelling way in which Sheila and Rebecca phrase things is actually key. Not only necessary for their mental health but ***key*** to cut through our worldviews of assumption…
Take the wonderful Marg Mowczko for example. So measured. So calm. So “hardcore facts” presented without the emotion. It’s wonderful and necessary what Marg does and I’m so grateful.
Yet…. convinced Complimentarians dismiss her as much as they do Sheila.
They just say she’s wrong, wicked and all the usual insults. They do not have ears to hear.
To be fair to comps, it creates a feeling of disgust to “err” from what they think is Godly obedience.
My point is I don’t think Sheila’s style of writing (because it includes anger when necessary) is the culprit for comps’ defensiveness. Marg’s measured, academic essays create the same response. It’s a psychological response of disgust to a core world view.
We need both. Sheila gets me to wake up and be gobsmacked at the obviousness of the atrocities I have swallowed. Marg’s style helps me wrestle through the nitty gritty of the translations to help overcome the tendency and fear of being disobedient to God and to feel confident of what the text said/says.
How I love them all, Sheila, Rebecca and Marg.
How they have changed everything for me.
I’m unsure if I would have ever got past that initial response of disgust to being disobedient if it wasn’t for a particular article I found of Sheila’s that was at the time fully outrageous. It shocked me. And yet made so much sense at the same time I was yanked out of my upbringing and assumptions.
But perhaps my most important reply to the tone policing accusation is a personal one:
6. If we had to swallow our anger, we couldn’t keep doing this.
If we had to be nice and sweet and very reasonable and not angry at people who are literally treating women like slaves and telling abused women to go back home and saying that when men are in jail for domestic violence you should welcome them back and never mention the abuse again as long as he repents–well, I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t. This is too much.
If you want me to keep calling this stuff out, then you have to let us do it in a way that is sustainable. And being able to be authentic and tell you when we’re angry and when we’re sad is the only way to do it.
What else is an appropriate emotion to Kevin Leman telling women to provide sexual favours postpartum so he won’t watch porn?
What else is an appropriate emotion for talking about Steve Arterubrn calling women methadone for husband’s sex addictions?
What else is an appropriate response for Fred Stoeker saying that if your husband coerces you into sex more than once a day, that’s bad (so once a day is okay?).
What else is an appropriate response for Emerson Eggerichs telling women they shouldn’t talk?
I simply can’t deal with this if I’m not allowed to get angry.
So if you support what we do and you want us to keep doing this, but you just don’t like our anger? Well, you can’t have one without the other. Not unless you want us to develop physical symptoms and ulcers from swallowing the trauma of all of this.
If we get to the point that that evil no longer bothers us, and we can talk about it dispassionately, well, then we will have reached the point that it’s time to both retire and withdraw from public life. We will have become one of them.
And that’s why I won’t let tone policing accusations stop us.
Yes, it means we won’t be palatable to everyone. But that was never going to happen anyway. If people don’t want to hear, they won’t.
But over and over again, people have told me that it’s my absolute anger at ridiculousness that has made them realize, “oh, this is seriously messed up.”
And please remember–this blog existed for 10 years with me being quiet and logical and not calling people out–and people didn’t really listen that much. It was when I finally spoke up about truth that people started changing.
So if you think it’s ineffective, please know you’re wrong. Our traffic, sales, and reviews say otherwise. Yes, your friends may not listen. But that may not be a problem with our tone, but rather with the fact that they don’t actually have ears to hear.
And there’s absolutely nothing I can do about that.
What do you think about the tone policing we face? How should we respond? Let’s talk in the comments!
Our Response to Common Accusations Against Us
Accusations about how we should treat other authors
- Why Matthew 18 can be misused
- How the authors we critiqued have responded (along with the history of our interactions with them).
- Why we're not trying to cancel other authors