Political Women, Dog Whistles, and Lady Bird

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August 17, 2016 by libroshombre

 

“The Politics Book” popped up during a recent foray to the public library. My old librarian’s eye was attracted by the “DK” on the cover. DK stands for Dorling Kindersly, a British publisher who describes itself as “founded in London in 1974 and is now the world’s leading illustrated reference publisher and part of Penguin Random House … DK publishes highly visual, photographic non-fiction for adults and children.  DK produces content for consumers in over 87 countries and 62 languages.” In short, they’re eye-poppingly-engaging, quick-read reference books. “How,” I wondered, “could something as broad as politics fit in the DK mold?”

So I checked it out. The historical overview of politics was, as some reviewers noted, distilled and simplified. But it was also easily digestible. There I learned about philosopher Georg Hegel’s curious view on the root of slavery being the slave’s obsequiousness: “If a man is a slave, his own will is responsible for his slavery,” Hegel wrote, “the wrong of slavery lies at the door not of enslavers or conquerors but of the slaves and conquered themselves.”

DK’s overview of John Stuart Mill’s philosophy, particularly his thoughts on “tyranny of the majority,” revived more pleasant memories. The staffs of Texas legislators in the 1970s consisted of a secretary and an aide. As Representative “Smiling” Dave Allred’s aide I was once asked to research Mill’s “majority tyranny” reasoning, which I pursued in the Legislative Reference Library, a crackerjack, even elite, library dedicated to supporting research of the Texas Legislature. Like any good librarian, the director helped me nail it, and a friendship ensued that led to him recommending me to library school and hiring me as the night reference librarian, thereby launching my bibliographic career.

Working at the Reference Library and the Legislature led to my enduring heightened sensitivity to political nuance. A recent Economist article, “War of Words: Women Are Judged By the Way They Speak,” caught my attention. “Female politicians are easily labeled: from the battle-axe to the national mum … the way they speak, the main task of politicians everywhere, is the most important sources of their influence and the biggest potential pitfall … The pitfalls for women’s political language come at every level, from tone of voice to word-choice to the topics of conversation to conversational styles … A study in 2012 showed that a bland political slogan, digitally altered to make it deeper, was more appealing to voters, no matter whether the voters were male or female.”

The article cited the example of Margaret Thatcher, who “took elocution lessons in the 1970s as she prepared to become the Conservative Party’s leader and ultimately prime minister. A surprisingly girlish voice from the 1960s became a commanding and much-admired tone during her premiership.” In fact, “the more ‘male” a woman behaves in a leadership setting, the more authority she gains.” Perhaps a worrisome consideration.

More disconcerting than women having to act like men is the growing use of political “dog whistles,” defined as “a coded message that appears innocuous to the general public, but that has an additional interpretation meant to appeal to the target audience.” The classic example, at least from my Southern boyhood, was when politicians said they supported “states’ rights.” That meant they were against racial integration and for segregation. “Ghetto” meant “black part of town,” and “anointed” was code for “speaking in tongues” and other Pentecostal activities.

This gets us into the realm of euphemisms, “a word or phrase used as a way of saying something without actually saying it directly.” Not all euphemisms are negative, and many are useful in polite society, such as discussing bodily parts and functions with small children. Euphemistic dog whistles, aside, what counts in life is to be as open-minded and well-informed as possible so when important decisions loom, like electing our nation’s leaders, your choices will be based on solid facts, not misleading or hidden messages from scoundrels intent on deception.

The very best place to get well-rounded information you can rely upon is your public library. As Lady Bird Johnson said, “Perhaps no place in any community is so totally democratic as the town library. The only entrance requirement is interest.”

 

 

 

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