Exploring the Kyriarchy: Hate Speech and Dog Whistles

Language affects perception. The words we use shape how we understand the world around us. And different languages and words shape perception in different ways. For example, cognitive psychologist Lera Boroditsky has explored how language affects perception, and she describes Aborigines in northern Australia. Their language uses cardinal directions - north, south, east, and west - to describe direction, as opposed to words like right and left. As a result, this group of people are incredibly adept at orientation. Her work shows that language affects our thinking.

The concept of political correctness is an attempt not to just change words, but also how we think about people in marginalized groups. As progressives work to change our culture into one that is more inclusive, empathetic, and just, words and phrases that were once common become taboo. It has become less acceptable - but not, yet, unacceptable - to be overtly racist in public. However, bigotry still exists in the minds of many Americans. Those individuals and groups have modified their language to express white supremacist, misogynistic, and ableist ideas in coded words and phases, known as dog whistles.

Take, for example the phrases ‘undocumented immigrant’ and ‘illegal alien.’ The first is intended to describe people who are seeking a better life, but (for often complex reasons) have failed to obtain documents proving their legal status as permanent residents; the latter is intended to invoke criminality and an otherness suggesting that they do not belong in the United States. This language is chosen on purpose. ‘Do it the legal way,’ is a way of expressing a racist idea while being able to deny that it is racist.

In recent weeks we’ve seen a number of stories that involve the OK hand gesture, which has been described as a symbol for white power. In July four Alabama police officers were suspended for using the gesture during a photo-op intended to credit the officers for their work in a drug task force arrest. In September a Trump administration advisor used the gesture while sitting behind Brett Kavanaugh during the first day of his confirmation hearings for a position on the Supreme Court. Also in September a US Coast Guard member, on duty during Hurricane Florence, used the gesture in view of cameras covering the hurricane response; he was later suspended. As Medium notes, the hand gesture has a history going back to at least 2015 among Trump supporters online, and its ambiguous nature is purposeful.

Similarly, the word ‘thug’ is now widely perceived to be a dog whistle describing black people. English professor John McWhorter noted in 2015 that the word ‘thug,’ a word meaning violent criminal, was used to describe those who rioted in Baltimore in protest of police violence. But as Martin Luther King, Jr insisted in a 1967 speech, “a riot is the language of the unheard.” King said that Americans must condemn the conditions that led to rioting as strongly as the rioting itself. But language like ‘thug’ criminalizes the people involved without acknowledging the context of the moment. The people who participate in a riot, like in Baltimore in 2015, are essentially participating in acts of civil disobedience. On their own, these acts are crimes, so the person who uses the term ‘thug’ can claim plausible deniability of their racist intent. The same language is not often used to describe white fans who riot after their sports team wins a major tournament.

Anti-LGBTQ language often uses dog whistles as well. In this case, those whistles are often framed in the language of religious freedom. For example, the phrase ‘love the sinner, but hate the sin’ is designed specifically to control behavior that is deemed offensive or corrupt. The person who uses this language can claim that they are not homophobic or transphobic, while still marginalizing LGBTQ people. To say, ‘I don’t agree with their lifestyle,’ is a way of saying that same-sex attraction shouldn’t be acceptable in our society. A claim of support for ‘traditional family values’ is a way of saying that family structures that are not made up of a man, a woman, and children are immoral. The assumption in this language is that a strict adherence to traditional gender roles is the only acceptable way to live.

Often, kyriarchal language is so imbedded in culture that it can be difficult to perceive as harmful. For example, the language of traditional gender roles is deeply imbedded in American culture. When we question a woman who has decided not to have children, we are making an unjust assumption about what a woman should be. When we casually shame a mother who works long hours, we are making an unjust assumption about what a mother should be. Referring to a grown woman as ‘girl’ shapes the way that many of us perceive women: less intelligent, less capable, needing help. Senator Grassley in October confirmed this bias when he suggested that women don’t serve on the Senate Judiciary Committee because they don't want the workload. He failed to acknowledge that women senators introduce more bills and move more bills out of committee than their male colleagues.

Arguments against the fact that a wage gap exists, or that it is a part of a patriarchal system, include the idea that women don’t choose higher-earning careers or that they don’t negotiate for higher wages. This argument leaves out the fact that the patriarchal system discourages girls from traditionally male careers: from stereotypes to biased teachers to toys. This language attempts to make an argument that men and women are different, hence the results. The argument presents itself as not sexist, while refusing to acknowledge the patriarchal system that creates differences in men and women.

Similarly media representations are built into the language of our culture. For example, the backlash received by the 2016 reboot of Ghostbusters with an all-women cast was filled with excuses that denied sexism. Criticisms of a possible black James Bond also claimed to be not racist. Same sex relationships still face an uphill battle in media representation. But representation matters. For example, Whoopi Goldberg has described being nine years old and seeing Nichelle Nichols portraying a powerful character who was not a maid, and she knew that she could be anything she wanted. Imagery contributes to how we perceive people and ourselves.

Ableist language is also widely used in our culture. While a movement to stop using the word ‘retarded’ has become more widespread, words like dumb, stupid, lame, and crazy are still very common. A person who commits a violent act is described as being ‘not right in the head,’ connoting mental illness while refusing to acknowledge that people with mental illness do not commit more violent crimes than people without mental illness.  

Political correctness has been seen as a device to limit people. It has been chided as childish and irresponsible. But when we fall back on coded language and stereotypes, we limit our perceptions of individuals within those groups. When movies depict Latinas as maids, we are reluctant to think of Latinas as scientists. When it is common to refer to women as girls, it becomes more difficult to perceive them as independent. When we conflate violence with mental illness, we marginalize people with mental illnesses. Working to change this language, and to avoid stereotypes, is a part of working toward a more just and equal society.