I pretty recently learned the phrase dog-whistle politics. The idea is that certain phrases have hidden, extra meaning to certain people. The Wikipedia page gives state’s rights as an example where political comments often have a more nuanced meaning that’s semi-concealed.
I’m not sure if it’s properly the same concept, but one apparent example of this I’ve become really interested in is the “Black lives matter” and “All lives matter” phrases. “Black lives matter” became a common refrain after Michael Brown’s shooting, and came to encompass a general frustration (probably too tame of a term) at the apparent disregard for how many people of color were shot by police. And, much like the proper definitions of feminism, I think that’s a cause that everyone should support.
But then, “All lives matter” and “Police lives matter” became common counter-arguments. And I saw many tweets along the lines of, “People who don’t attack cops don’t get shot. #policelivesmatter.” It started to be associated with people who argued that Darren Wilson was innocent (or even, in some people’s strange opinions, “a hero”), and that Michael Brown pretty much deserved to be shot. (To be clear, that is not my opinion.)
I remember being very upset upon reading a tweet that said something like, “On 9/11, many police officers knowingly ran INTO the Twin Towers. #policelivesmatter” And I realized that it had reached the point where the actual words used were entirely irrelevant.
The literal meaning, and that a person not familiar with a lot of backstory, was one that everyone would agree with: there were so many heroes in the NYPD that willingly gave their lives on 9/11, and saying that their lives matter is so patently obvious that it seems weird to even mention.
But the reason it seems so weird to mention is that there’s a lot of hidden meaning, or at least that I read into it. It reads like a counter to the “black lives matter” people, in a time with a lot of police brutality being discussed in the news. What I read wasn’t a lot different from, “Black people need to quit complaining about being disproportionately harmed by police violence. I side with the police who choked Eric Gardner.”
The point here isn’t whether I correctly read the meaning, nor who is correct. I’m merely fascinated by how some terms or concepts can become so incredibly charged that people read into them meanings that aren’t contained in the actual words said. Because of the specific phrasing and the timing/context of a comment, I took a tweet expressing gratitude for NYPD officers who gave their lives on 9/11 as an appallingly racist, hateful message. And that is utterly fascinating to me.
But this isn’t isolated. Conversations about the Confederate flag, “religious freedom,” or “women’s rights” often conjure up extremely strong emotions and opinions, even where they’re not necessarily intended. And just try to have a rational conversation about gun control or the Second Amendment, or immigration policy. The terms are so charged with meanings you likely don’t even intend.