EDITORIAL: Don’t ignore dog whistle politics

Dog whistle politicsidentify it, act on it.


Don’t ignore dog whistle politics
Toronto Star, Feb. 5, 2017

“Dog whistle” politics is a disingenuous political strategy, used by the alt-right, white nationalist movements, in, particular. It mixes sexism, homophobia, xenophobia and most recently, Islamophobia into a toxic brew designed to sow anxiety and suspicion in those who are receptive to the message.

The scenario last week in Ste-Foy, Que., was unimaginable. A Canadian white extremist male massacred six Muslims who were innocently worshipping in their mosque. A professor, a pharmacy worker and a civil servant were slaugh­tered. Seventeen children are now without fathers. Canadian families have been torn asunder.

If it makes us sick, it should.

If it causes us to question our political and social media discourse, we have to.

Should it make us ask, if we as individual citizens, can do anything? Yes, it should.

First, we can no longer see this heinous tragedy in isolation.

Canadians watched in horror, on Oct. 22, 2014, as a soldier on ceremonial duty at the National War memorial was shot and killed, moments before the attacker stormed Parliament Hill.

Just two days previously, another Canadian soldier had been killed by Yet another so called “lone wolf.”

Secondly, whatever the mental stability and mixed motives behind the perpetrators, the political context in which these events have happened is relevant. Unless we identify possible extenuating causes, we risk further horrific incidents.

One of those causes is the use of “dog whistle” political messaging. Like a high-pitched dog whistle, which not everyone hears, this is a cowardly strategy that hides behind code words and phrases. It is not a new tactic but has increased in frequency with the rise of right wing parties, extremism and authoritarian leaders.

Examples of “dog whistle politics”

The “birther” movement in the United States was a good example. In spite of documented evidence that Barack Obama was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, Donald Trump continued to spread the false rumour that Obama was born elsewhere. The subliminal message was that Obama was a foreigner and “not one of us.” For many Americans, this idea fed into fears that they were being shoved aside by forces they could not control.

Similarly, Stephen Harper used the expression of “old-stock Canadians” during a debate in the 2015 election. The bizarre phrase suggested a hierarchy of citizenship, a far cry from the value of equality that Justin Trudeau was es­pousing. Warning lights started to flash in voters’ minds.

Goals of right wing politicians
Stephen Bannon, the current puppet master in the White House, would likely argue that dog whistle politics can create winning conditions for candidates. But Ian Haney Lopez, an American law professor and author of a 2015 book “Dog Whistle Politics,” argues politicians on the right desire much more than an individual victory. Rather, they wish to destroy social safety nets along with the governments that promote them. In other words, the goal is to literally demolish liberal, progressive societies and replace them with repressive conservative ideologies.

What you can do about “dog whistling”
So, what can we do to stop the spread of this inflammatory and destructive force? How do we halt the powerful right wing of Trump’s America from spilling over our borders with their vicious messages? There are a number of ways.

  1. Canadian politicians who use coded messages of race-baiting or val­ues testing should be “named and shamed” by political opponents. Al­ready this is thankfully happening in the Conservative leadership race. Strate­gists and pollsters who practise this type of dangerous communication must think twice before posing questions designed to whip up prejudice. Clients and investors may equally become concerned about provocative behaviour.
  2. Don’t allow friends or colleagues to discriminate against others or to disseminate hateful information. Whether a message is in a tweet, during a conversation, or on Face­book, point out errors or bias. Civil society and individuals are watch dogs for truth and fairness.
  3. Main stream media and social media equally have responsibility to verify facts and to report without bias. And never forget the power of words. Quebec Pre­mier Philippe Couillard noted that “Words can hurt. Words can be knives slashing at people’s consciousness.” But words can also heal and soothe, espe­cially when they are spoken with great sensitivity by a member of the commu­nity, which has just been devastated.

“What the Daesh is doing in the name of Islam is an affront to Islam, decency and humanity. What took place in Que­bec was criminal and horrible. But the response of Canadians with love and solidarity represents Canada at its best and offers us pride and hope,” said Mo­hammed Azhar Ali Khan, a former jour­nalist and Order of Canada recipient.

We are the defenders of the principles of our society
Let’s not let our communities and ourselves down. Let’s support each other with understanding and strength.

And while we are it, let’s throw those dog whistles in the garbage.

 Penny Collenette is an adjunct professor of law at the University of Ottawa and was a senior director of the Prime Minister’s Office for Jean Chretien ______________________________________________________________


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