Tragedies, news coverage, and communication. How can we avoid dog whistles like "classic terrorism?"

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Amid yesterday’s coverage of a mass shooting in New York City, one, somewhat stunning, tweet happened to catch my eye. It has since gone viral, and is causing a fair amount of conversation. This is quite interesting to me as a professional communicator, and something that addresses an important issue.

Let’s say for a second that you do not live in New York City. Let’s add the additional contextualization factor that you do not have any friends or family in New York City. How would you learn about events happening in New York City? Why it’d take you reading the news or hearing about such events on social media, wouldn’t it?

In that case, let’s assume at some point today that you happen to turn on your television. For a split second, as you’re flipping through the channels you stumble across the news. And while you’re on the news, you happen to see this:

This was recorded yesterday and will surely have components to it that do not reflect the full scale of the tragedy once the dust settles and all the injuries, trauma, and harm have had time to make themselves be felt. Nevertheless, it is an interesting thing to listen to if you can stomach news of the tragedy.

One very important bit of it is quoted in the embedded tweet, and it’s currently making the rounds online, which I think that it should, and that’s because it could easily be considered a “dog whistle.”

Dog whistles

Before I get into classical terrorism, I want to bring up dog whistles, which, in a literal sense, are devices that are used to help train dogs and in some cases other animals as well. They operate by emanating a noise that most humans cannot hear and that the animals one seeks to train can. This means that some creatures can pick up what someone is signaling whenever they use a dog whistle.

In a figurative sense, a “dog whistle” is a sort of communicative technique in which someone uses coded or suggestive language to garner support from a group of people without other people noticing. This is a deliberate softening of language meant to appeal to or at least not alienate a wide range of people while signaling something harder to detect to people outside of a certain group.

Dog whistles have become a common part of life in the U.S., to the point where they are a ubiquitous component of conservative political messaging. Everything from terms like “Judeo-Christian values” to “tough on crime” can be and often are examples of dog whistles.

Someone can blow into a dog whistle without realizing precisely what they are blowing and that appears to have been what happened today. When someone says “classical terrorism” regardless of their intent there are images that come to the minds of laypeople.

So, how does this relate to classic terrorism?

Believe it or not, “classic terrorism” may have some sort of actual meaning, beyond the admittedly very funny image of Peter Griffin holding the color chart. It is possible to communicate a coherent, non-racist idea of what is now being dubbed “classic terrorism,” though it’d be quite difficult to do that in front of an audience of laypeople.

It is possible that “classic terrorism” could refer to terrorism that is intended to send a message regarding socio-economic classes. It’s also not impossible for “classical terrorism” to refer to trends demonstrated by the terrorists of yesteryear. We should not assume that that’s what was meant here, as there is no evidence of that, but it’s not impossible.

That said, the actual quote being discussed is not a segway into a nuanced discussion of terrorism. The quote itself was part of a closing remark on a larger, still underway, news story and it was a thoughtless remark at that.

Someone can blow into a dog whistle without realizing precisely what they are blowing and that appears to have been what happened today. When someone says “classical terrorism” regardless of their intent there are images that come to the minds of laypeople.

If you were raised in the U.S. and you had regular exposure to news media there is a real possibility that someone can predict what you’d reflectively envision a terrorist to be.

It’s not something you have much control over, after all. You didn’t make the choice to link terrorism and Islam, and through that tie together Arabic people and terrorism, on television for years.

Why does this matter?

All of this illustrates the importance of conscious communication. When you have an audience that reaches into the tens of thousands you need to consider the impact of your words. You need to think about that whistle that you’re lifting to your lips.

Conscious communication can help you avoid blowing dog whistles. It’s harder to think about what you say before you say it than it is to just say things thoughtlessly, but it’s worth it.

In moments of a tragedy like in New York City, we can stay focused if we avoid the easy to reach for dog whistles. We can avoid making light of a tragedy, one that will linger on in the lives of those affected as they recover from being shot and trampled, by communicating more intentionally.

The thing about dog whistles is that they are often innocuous looking. There’s nothing wrong-sounding about something like fighting for “family values” or being “tough on crime”. They look, or sound rather, like ordinary and colorless statements. That’s why we’ve got to look for them before we say them. We need to be thoughtful and intentional in our communication.

As people around the internet react to this “Classical terrorism” snafu, I hope we can learn from this moment, and attempt to predict how our words will be received before we speak, so we can avoid being the internet’s main character of the day.

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Luciano Joshua Gonzalez-Vega

Luciano Joshua Gonzalez-Vega is a Puerto Rican atheist and secular humanist living in Greensboro, North Carolina. They have a Master's Degree in Peace & Conflict Studies from the University of North...