OPINION: Hyde-Smith’s ‘Public Hanging’ Comment Is A Prime Example Of ‘Dog Whistle’ Misconceptions

Stephen Finley | Former Defense Research Writer

If one wants a prime example of the media being profoundly stupid — and of a political opponent engaging in the worst kind of opportunism that treats voters as equally stupid — it’s hard to do better than the uproar over Mississippi Senate candidate Cindy Hyde-Smith’s “public hanging” comment.

Without getting into whether it was smart to make the comment (it wasn’t), or whether the incident was another example of a Republican cluelessly giving the opposition all kinds of ammunition to get shot with (good Lord, was it ever), let’s just take a look at the “dog whistle” trope that almost never makes any sense as used in a political context, and is even more ridiculous than usual in this specific matter.

Wikipedia defines “dog-whistle” politics as “political messaging employing coded language that appears to mean one thing to the general population but has an additional, different, or more specific resonance for a targeted subgroup. The analogy is to a dog whistle, whose ultrasonic whistling sound is heard by dogs but inaudible to humans.”

We can begin by acknowledging that a “dog whistle,” by definition, involves some statement or action that is indecipherable to most normal people or at least to political opponents, intended only for understanding by relatively few insiders, typically understood to be (or characterized by the opposition as) extremists.

But the term is misused all the time by incompetent journalists and political operatives who either don’t understand it or don’t care what it means.

In the Hyde-Smith matter, as in nearly all cases over the past couple of years, it has to do with an ill-advised reference to “public hanging” that was translated into “lynching” by both Hyde-Smith’s opponent Mike Espy and the shrieking press in about two milliseconds. So there was self-evidently nothing cryptic or subtle here.

And, remember: The comment was made in Mississippi. If a candidate is trying to send a down-low, dog-whistle-type signal there, a reference to a public hanging isn’t the way to do it.

So, that’s one problem. This comment was the opposite of a “dog whistle” because it was clearly destined for a five-alarm be-very-offended-fest.

In fact, nearly all instances of statements or actions tagged as “dog whistles” in politics tend to fall into one of two categories, either 1) self-evidently inaccurate and definitionally self-deconstructing, as here or 2) requiring so much meaning to be read into something so minuscule or irrelevant that the “dog whistle” isn’t really heard by anyone other than the people who do word constructs for a living.

But there’s a second question in the Hyde-Smith situation that always comes up in that first category: What exactly was the purpose of this “dog whistle” supposed to be? Does anybody actually think there is any possibility whatsoever that somebody who wasn’t going to vote for Hyde-Smith originally is now going to vote for her because she referred to a so-called “lynching”? Really?

One would think any rational person (let alone somebody who’s supposed to figure out how to ask good questions and say accurate things for a living) would have found these two glaring holes in the “dog whistle” angle here to be more than obvious. But journalists, or “journalists,” seem to have missed these holes entirely.

The dog-whistle trope is, at heart, yet another verbal device used to go after an opponent in a way that makes it essentially impossible for her to defend herself, because the thing is spoken of as if the truth of it were already established, and that “truth” (really just a proposition) is non-disconfirmable, since it’s not based on evidence to begin with, and since it depends on the internet-age standard of “yeah, that sounds like it could/should be true.”

The accused stands as guilty until proven innocent, but there’s no way to prove innocence since it was just a word construct to begin with.

So, a person is guilty because people can say words, because they can call whatever unwise statement she made either a dog whistle or a Freudian slip; she can’t prove otherwise; and there is no good-faith mutual agreement to take her intent for what it actually was, a critical characteristic of a rational and civil society.

There’s an endless variety of these kinds of devices, always coming down to the same essence: If an assertion can put it into words, and it fits our narrative, it’s true until proven otherwise. This is not how Western civilization and rationalism were built.

Stephen Finley was a senior technical writer and editor for U.S. Army research. He taught at Texas Tech, the Univ. of New Mexico and the Univ. of Utah. Finley has also been a higher-ed curriculum developer, press liaison, and journalist.


The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.

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