“Make America Great Again”
The overt text doesn’t say anything about race. It certainly doesn’t say one race is better than the other. The overt text is just about restoring America’s values and past glory, right?
And yet, Trump’s supporters clearly hear it as a comment on race relations and power dynamics. In fact, Trump’s attitudes on race have been perhaps his greatest selling point for his loyal supporters. “Make American Great Again” is the message that can convey his intention to perpetuate racism without needing to be accountable for it.
It’s a dog whistle.
The true meaning of the message is known to its intended audience but seems innocuous enough to everyone else. It’s a message carried through subtext – the implied message underneath the overt message – rather than the overt message itself.
This dynamic shows that we must make some attempt to understand what is meant, or what might reasonably be heard, that isn’t stated explicitly when someone speaks. We must make some guesses on what might be intended and what might be heard lurking underneath the surface. We must make some attempt to interpret subtext.
And yet, in doing so, we give ourselves immense, terrible power. We give ourselves the power to project meaning that may not be there, to assume the absolute worst. We allow ourselves to believe that we know what another person is saying better than they do. We justify ourselves in making straw men attacks, where we simply invent the argument that we most want to attack.
I recently had a conversation about the Google employee James Damore, who resisted gender and racial equality policies at work. From what I could tell, the argument of the man I was speaking with was primarily about what was implied subtly through Damore’s memo. It was a dog whistle. He was most upset at the subtext of the message, not the message itself.
I kept saying something to the effect of “But that’s not what he said!” I wasn’t really interested in propping up Damore’s viewpoints, but more in asserting that he was at least trying to engage in reasoned discussion. As such, in my mind, the most effective response to him would be facts and reasons, rather than name-calling and assumptions of what he meant but would not say.
Having a few months of distance from this conversation, I feel torn.
On one hand, I believe in criticizing with kindness. When debating someone we should articulate the other side’s argument so powerfully that they say “Wow, I wish I had thought to put it that way!” We should offer the most generous interpretation of what the other side is saying and then ask them to clarify. We should make every attempt to truly understand them, rather than making assumptions about them. This is civil, respectful debate.
On the other hand, as we know, racism, misogyny, and all sorts of other social ills perpetuate themselves through subtext and dog whistles. We can’t trust someone to fully articulate their real argument. We can’t even trust someone really understands the effects of what they are saying. When we give the most generous interpretation, we allow ourselves to ignore the racism implied in statements like “Make America Great Again”. That is irresponsible and unacceptable.
How do we navigate this terrain? How do we go on debating with kindness, making honest attempts to understand what others are saying without false and ugly caricatures of their argument, while still dealing with the reality that the most potent, destructive messages are those hiding underneath the surface?
How do we hear genuine dog whistles without imagining false ones?