You Don’t Say!

The sleepy town of Nailsea in North Somerset has twice made the news in the last week or so.

Firstly, some wag affixed sticky eyes onto a statue of former Wurzels frontman Adge Cutler. Vandal-eyes-ed, as surprisingly nobody said. And now, an anonymous urbane guerrilla has printed out five A4 pages reading ‘It’s ok to be white’ and stuck them to the wall of an underpass. That is one mofoing mean town, man.

Cue stentorian rage. The public is ‘sickened’. Just a relief that the interviewer didn’t follow up with a few questions about the Unabomber, then. The police have set their coffee and doughnuts aside and are apparently probing the whole sorry escapade.

By anyone’s reckoning, the underwhelming caper was arguably nothing more than manifestly pointless, other than it had perhaps enabled some disgruntled soul to get something burdensome off their chest. Might we venture deeper with our analysis? Well, it was arguably dim to have expended any quantity of exorbitantly priced ink on the exercise, but their modus operandi was quaintly genteel and sufficiently public-spirited to have printed the colourless missive on their own paper, to have posted them in relative obscurity, and to have got their apostrophe usage on point. Precisely what the police will be investigating, though, is beyond me unless the adhesive used had damaged the paint on the underpass wall.

Others, however, vehemently disagree. From their perspective, the flyers were ‘racist’, and the phrase was a dog-whistle employed by white supremacists. Yes, some alt-right loons had indeed latched onto the maxim at one time and had trotted it out, but there is an important consideration here regarding meaning. In fact, this is the biggie.

But first of all, who gives words their meaning? The speaker, the audience, or is it contained within the words themselves? There is no clear-cut answer to this – indeed, careers have been forged on it (literally as well as metaphorically). Prescriptive linguists take the ‘dictionary plus grammar’ approach because their bag is linguistic meaning. For others, communicative meaning that derives from holistic communication and standardised use and meaning are just as pertinent. These might transcend words alone and at the same time allow for the symbolic use of phrases. ‘It’s a bit chilly in here’ may mean, ‘it is cold’, yet may also mean, ‘please close the window’.

A nudge or a wink might negate a sentence and attribute an opposite meaning. Everyday communication blends the whole range of components, nuances and, and contexts.

The difficulty with applying communicative or standardised meanings too liberally is twofold. Firstly, societies are generally hardwired to rely on linguistic meaning as being definitive. Lawyers draft contract clauses (or at least they should) to be unequivocal. In contentious matters, judges rely on the ordinary meaning of words. That is not to say that communicative meaning has no value, but linguistic meaning can be tracked back to clear rule systems and garners primacy.

The second issue relates to whether any given communicative meaning or standardised forms can be anchored to something that is widely enough known that an ordinary person might interpret it in the same way. I can argue that ‘bread’ means ‘money’ because the usage of the term is widely enough known to qualify it. In such a specific context we can even trump the linguistic meaning of, ‘a staple food prepared from a dough of flour and water, usually by baking’. Yet, I would have a tougher task in convincing a jury that I meant ‘money’ by saying ‘wizard’.

If the reference point is too niche or narrow, the meaning might be rejected or would have to be qualified by a very specific context.

As for the speakers, they have intent and choice, but they have to choose wisely. An audience has its own degree of understanding and can misunderstand just as speakers can say what they did not mean to say.

So, ‘wizard’ can still mean money to me, but that is not the same as it meaning money.

One additional dimension to the meaning angle, though, is our cultural conditioning. Think about swearwords relating to parts of the body, or sex, and why they are offensive, while the technical terms for the same bits and bobs and their application are acceptable. Offensiveness can be nothing to do with intrinsic meaning, nor even what the words evoke.

Societal norms dictate simply what words are acceptable and what are not. These also clarify what words and actions are acceptable in which contexts. And this may often change over time. Within certain eras and sometimes on-going, we are pre-programmed to be offended at certain things. That gets tricky with the usage of individual words when we use them out of context, but at least in most cases, we can track back through linguistic frameworks to make sense of this. If whole phrases are deemed taboo, we are on dangerous territory with the potential for spurious interpretations to be weaponised.

Lamentably, the IOKTBW phrase itself has a more interesting history that may leave us guffawing up our sleeves if only for the duration of a snort or two. It came into popular usage as some sort of psycho-social experiment designed by those behind online imageboard 4chan to prove the hypothesis that even the most anodyne phrase, if propagated, would provoke a backlash in the current hypersensitive milieu.

Looks like another score for the men in the white coats. Which could be a pat on the back for behavioural psychologists or a ‘dog whistle for mental health hate speech’ depending on how you would like to frame it.

Of course, our master printer may be a Grand Wizard of the South-West Chapter of the White Knights, but he is most probably an ordinary chap working insurance hell death shifts who got the hump about something and had a measured pop back. This is not the Unabomber though to the good people of Nailsea it may as well be.

But back to dog whistling, and the skill – when it happens – is precisely the ability to use overtly innocuous coded language to not attract criticism and to remain within the law. Accordingly, it allows those employing the tactic to attract and then to preach to the converted with the hidden, ahem, meaning whooshing over everybody else’s heads.

Dissecting dog whistles is for many reasons counter-productive. Not only is the starting point a decidedly shaky, linguistic back foot, but any markedly bland statement coming under fierce fire can make vociferous critics appear just a tad unhinged. Worst of all, a commentator who attempts to unmask a dog-whistling exploit invariably draws attention to nefarious messaging that would otherwise have remained hidden.

It all benefits the shady players and nobody else. Leave them be, and they are left sitting on nothing more than a pile of abjectly flat rhetoric.

Best to leave them to it.

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