You Might Not Hear the Dog-Whistle, But I Do

We all know that language can be both a tool of liberation and a weapon, and that the use of codewords and loaded language is common throughout political movements. The same word or phrase can mean different things depending on speaker, context, and environment, and carefully-chosen language is used by people across the political spectrum to say one thing and mean another, to send subtle messaging to some people while others remain unaware, and to reinforce certain social attitudes without explicitly doing so. The use of dog-whistles, as they’re called[1. Because they’re only ‘audible’ to some listeners.], is especially troubling in the context of social attitudes, because it can become impossible to identify the problem with something if people aren’t willing to admit that it contains a dog-whistle.

This came up for me earlier this year when I discussed the numerous flaws with NPR’s reporting on disability benefits. To me, the problems were self-evident upon hearing the programme, and numerous other people spotted the same issues I did, writing about them, talking about them, and discussing them as a community. Other people, however, totally missed the problem, and so I attempted to write up a cohesive and clear document on the subject in the hopes of laying out the issue for readers.

The reporting relied heavily on dog-whistles, and I articulated that for readers, pointing out that while the report didn’t explicitly say certain things, they were heavily implied in the way the information was presented, the nature of the information chosen for broadcast, and the very language used. It was often subtle, but not always: some of the phrases used were later retracted by NPR in a telling show of admission that it had done wrong, and not just attacked disabled people, but also advanced factually incorrect information in the course of that attack.

Lots of people continued not to get it, though. They didn’t see the problem. They thought it was fair and balanced reporting. They trotted out NPR’s credentials and the credentials of those involved in the broadcast as evidence that it must be reliable and the information provided within correct. Despite ample links to commentary to the contrary, numerous commenters pointing out the existence of dog-whistles in the piece, and a theoretical understanding of how dog-whistles worked, likely with at least some sympathy for disability issues since they’d read a rather lengthy piece about same, commenters stubbornly refused to admit that the NPR piece had a highly negative and potentially damaging framing.

Was it sheer stubbornness because they didn’t want to admit that they hadn’t spotted a problem on their own? This seems to be a common issue in some social justice circles, where people will hotly rise to the defense of something they like or didn’t think that critically about when someone does criticise it out of embarrassment that they might have missed something, even though it’s impossible for all of us to catch all of the things all of the time. Some of this culture seems to arise from a pressure to always be right the first time, and the tendency for people to turn on you when you aren’t, creating even more of a drive to deny something you didn’t see; if it wasn’t there, you can still be right.

Was it a passionate defense of NPR, a programme beloved by many people on the liberal end of the political spectrum? NPR at this point is far from a liberal organisation, falling more along the center of the political spectrum, with significant gaps in coverage. Their coverage of disability issues in particular, as with other news organisations, tends to be poor; I was unsurprised that this programme was bad, as it was an overall reflection of their lack of interest in covering disability issues responsibly and comprehensively.

Or was it a refusal to listen to people discussing dog-whistles? Because I see this happening again and again: members of marginalised groups talk about coded and loaded language, and their concerns and criticisms are dismissed by people who either benefit from such language, or aren’t at the other end of it, so don’t understand on a personal level what it feels like. They aren’t attuned to it, and they think that because they didn’t hear it, it’s not a problem.

Take the phrase ‘the suspect has been known to listen to rap music.’

That’s coded language. If that’s all you’re told about this theoretical suspect, what kinds of conclusions are you going to jump to? If you’re white, and not thinking about dog-whistles (and the whole point is that you don’t, because they are so subtly embedded that you scan right over them and your brain fills in the gaps), you’re probably assuming that the suspect is Black (Black people listen to rap, right?) and must be a ‘thug’ (because ‘thugs’ listen to rap music). This combination, ‘Black thug,’ probably leads you to other associations—gang, dropped out of school, violent, baby daddy, scary.

Your associations with ‘rap music’ have created a whole story around the suspect without your conscious awareness, unless you step back and look into yourself to see what you’ve done. Likewise, when nondisabled people hear the words ‘disabled people don’t work’ on a news broadcast, they immediately jump to ideas like scroungers sucking off the government teat. Lazy people pretending to be disabled to avoid working. People living high on the government hog with their disability benefits. People getting free cars and other perks because they ‘claim’ to be disabled.

These are loaded phrases, which is why members of minority communities highlight them and talk about them when they show up in the media, because they want to underscore the fact that dog-whistles are used on a routine basis and it’s important to pay attention to them. Because if you don’t, you’re unlikely to start pushing back against them. Yet, time and time again, people refuse to listen: there’s an active denial, a suppression of marginalised people, often from people who label themselves as ‘allies.’

‘I didn’t hear it, so you don’t know what you’re talking about.’ ‘You’re being too sensitive.’

Why are people so determined to refuse to listen to the very communities they claim to be working in solidarity with? Perhaps it’s because they’re actually enjoying the institutional structures that create and reinforce marginalisation.