The next time you watch the news and a politician says something seemingly innocuous or simplifies a controversial topic, think twice about what they might actually mean. They might be using a harmful dog whistle.
With populism ever popular and the soundbite era in full swing, simplified and coded phrases are worming their way deeper into politics, and they’re eating at the heart of our language. A dog whistle is a phrase that goes unheard by most but that hides a stronger, often more dangerous, message.
Recently, for example, you will have heard Home Secretary Suella Braverman (and the rest of the Big Brother-nment) talking about “Stopping the small boats”. This is a dog whistle.
Initially it sounds like a literal logistical thing, stop small boats because that’s what “the immigration problem” is – incorrect as that may be. But to those that can hear the whistle, it is a message which reinforces xenophobia and the dehumanisation of others, a message that tells people it’s okay to dislike someone because they’ve come to the UK from abroad for any reason and by any means.
This is the beginning of a new wave of hate.
It is important for politicians and media outlets to be wary of such dog whistles, not just in speech but in writing too. Whether that be an “88” in someone’s Twitter bio secretly denoting the eighth letter of the alphabet, forming an “HH” for “Heil Hitler”, or “concerns” about trans rights on the “safety of women and children” that are based in transphobia, the way information is conveyed to the public by figures of authority shapes how society views certain issues.
So, next time you hear a particular phrase thrown around by politicians and the news a lot, stop and consider whether someone else might be hearing something different.