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Dog-Whistling Past Disaster
Recently the use of the political phrase "dog whistle" came to my attention while listening to the Sunday morning political talk shows. According to Wikipedia, "Dog-whistle politics" refers to political speechmaking or campaigning that uses coded language to signify one thing to the general public, while also signifying a different and more specific meaning to a targeted subgroup of the audience. The analogy is a reference to dog whistles, which emit an extremely high-frequency pitch that only dogs can hear, and humans can't. Political "dog-whistling" as a tactic of public persuasion can take a variety of forms.
One example occurred in 2004, when Karl Rove engineered the inclusion of anti-gay-marriage voter initiatives on ballots in a several key states to help pull more conservative voters, who were more likely to vote for George W. Bush, to the polls. In another example, certain phrases in political speechmaking -- like "family values," "activist judges" and "evildoers" -- indicate to a conservative audience that the speaker is on their side. One "dog whistle" that bothers me is when public safety advocates refer to the dangers that some products pose to "our children." They try to draw out more and stronger emotion by using the phrase "our children." Their point should be more straightforward: the product is bad for all people, not just kids.
These are some examples of intentional political "dog-whistling."
Based on how this strategy works, though, we should assume that unintentional "dog-whistling" can also occur.
By all accounts, the U.S. is a pretty violent society. At 14.24 deaths per every 100,000 people, the rate of firearm deaths in the U.S. far outstrips that of our economic counterparts. By comparison, the rate of firearm deaths in Europe is just 2.17 per 100,000 people. The U.S. also spends far more on defense than any other country on Earth. Video games, rap music, sports, religious tales, movies and TV shows offer a steady stream of messages that violence is a legitimate response to a problem. Add to this mix political candidates, legislators and "celebriticians" like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin using violent rhetoric and gun metaphors, throw in conservatives' constant portrayal of government as a threat, the difficulties Americans have accessing mental health sevices and free and wide access to guns, and it's not a big leap to conclude we have a social tinderbox on our hands.
We can surmise that violent discourse and the use of gun metaphors and imagery in political speech -- particularly when they reach a fevered pitch as happened during the last election season -- have the potential to serve as an unintentional "dog whistle," or call to action for people who are mentally unbalanced. Even if no one who uses such rhetoric publicly truly intends to incite dangerous behavior, public figures would be on the safe side to assume their words have the power to motivate action, and that what they say really does matter.
The mere potential for unintended consequences from such speech is enough reason for public figures to consider being more measured and wise about what they say, and how they say it.
Being careful about what you say is free. It can't hurt, and it could help.