OnWords: Tone

Nov 14, 2017

When senators Bob Corker and Jeff Flake recently announced they were not running for reelection, they both noted the tone, the manner in which the current president communicates.

This is all fine and good, but it seems somewhat strange coming from men who voted with the president more often than not.

Such complaints about the tone of public speech are understandable. We’d like to be proud of the quality of our political debate. It makes us feel good as Americans to have witnessed the use of words fit for the ages.

But focusing on the tone of speech can distract us from its content. For the people on the receiving end of cuts in public services, the tone of the debate that led to the cut is immaterial.

To the student who has to suffer in a dangerous neighborhood or bad school, the quality of the rhetoric that led to her situation doesn’t matter.

For those who aren’t students of rhetoric, focusing only on its tone leads to cynicism about politics itself. Ironically, the tone we want to be proud of can subvert the results that make us proud.

For poets and debaters, tone and content can be one. But for the average person, tone can get in the way of getting to the heart of things.