Jun 142018 3 Responses

You Know What You’re Saying

Words have meanings. When control of Congress hangs in the balance based on the election of one Senate seat, conservative and liberal mean something. They distinguish between two worldviews. While there are some commonalities, the words are used to differentiate between perspectives. A conservative perspective differs from that of a liberal regarding the role of government, expectations of the judicial branch, the order in which things should be prioritized, etc. In the fairest uses of the words, conservative and liberal mean something. Generally, we vote for the candidate whose philosophy most matches our perspective.

But what happens when the words conservative and liberal are used in a different context? In my hometown, the city government is the Board/Manager format. The buck stops with the Board of Directors. Elected from several areas across town, the Board is ultimately responsible for all issues. They hire a city manager who oversees employees and day-to-day operation. In this format of city government, the mayor is primarily ceremonial. He has some influence on the Board, having a tie-breaking vote if necessary. But primarily, the Mayor is a figure-head championing the city, being a cheerleader, and working in public relations for the community.

In this format of government, what do the words conservative and liberal mean when used in a mayor’s race? It’s not about worldview or governmental perspective. Whether a candidate is conservative or liberal in politics means little in a position that is primarily ceremonial. But when those words are regularly used during an election for a ceremonial mayor, they still have meaning. It’s just a meaning that differs from how they are normally used. (See: Get On Your Moral High Horse)

Code Langauge

When we use words that have one meaning but we are actually using them to communicate another meaning, we are using code language.

Obviously, in 2018, it’s not socially acceptable to blatantly use racist or sexist language in public. Unfortunately, it’s still widely accepted to use such language in private, but in public, such language is not proper. Yet the basic biases which give birth to such language has not disappeared. Racism and sexism are still present and they still motivate actions. In order to communicate such feelings without being ostracized for using overtly racist or sexist terms, people have to use code language.

A man can’t say, “You’re a woman so your ideas are clearly not worthy of my consideration.” So they preface their comments with “honey” or “sweetie” which gives the appearance of kindness but actually communicates a clear sense of superiority.

It’s improper to use the n-word or other words of old which might communicate a negative feeling toward someone’s skin color, so different words have to be used like “thug,” “inner city,” or “welfare.”

While the words “conservative” and “liberal” have concrete meanings in certain contexts, they can also be used as code words in other situations. When I say, “I just want a good conservative,” in reference to an election for the US Senate, it means I want someone with a specific worldview representing me in DC. When I say, “I just want a good conservative,” and I’m talking about a position that has nothing to do with the national liberal/conservative divide, then I likely mean I want someone who is white.

Code Language at Play

In my hometown, the current mayor is not seeking re-election. When it was first announced, two candidates announced their intention to run. One is a local college student. The other is a long-time city and state leader, a current state representative, and someone greatly overqualified for the position. For months these were the only two candidates, but I kept hearing:

  • “We need to get us a candidate.”
  • “We just need a good man with character.”
  • “We need a good conservative.”

Us? Who is us? What makes the main candidate not one of us?

Man? So, we don’t need a woman?

Character? Are you implying the current candidate doesn’t have strong character?

Conservative? Is there a conservative way to be a ceremonial leader?

It’s all code language. The fact is that a small group of influential people do not want our city to be represented by a woman or by someone of color and they said so. They didn’t use the language they’ve used in the past, but they clearly communicated their thoughts. They just did it with code language.

This isn’t to say the candidate they recruited is hiding his real agenda. I don’t think he is. He is a good man simply trying to serve his community. This doesn’t mean his supporters are ill-intended. They aren’t. They are simply supporting a man they love.

But it is to call attention to the presence of code language and how if we aren’t aware of it, code language can greatly influence our vote without us realizing it. The way to neutralize code language is to recognize it and question it. (See: Locker Room Talk and Being a Man)

  • Is the use of a conservative/liberal divide appropriate in this context?
  • Is the use of a word about behavior actually a reference to gender or race?
  • Is the use of a location actually a reference to race or religion?

The problem with code language is that it’s very easy to deny. Yet we shouldn’t let the deniability prevent us from raising important questions.

When you say Chicago, do you really mean Chicago or are you talking about people of color?

When you say illegal immigrant, do you really mean anyone who is in America without documentation or are you only talking about Mexicans? (Even the word Mexican isn’t appropriate. In many instances people from a variety of countries are lumped into a single category which doesn’t define their nation or history.)

When you called her bossy, was she truly too demanding or do you just not think women should be in leadership or show initiative?

Code language is everywhere. In many cases, it is more damaging than overt racism and sexism. At least when someone uses a racist or sexist word, there is no denying what they said. With code language, they can communicate a hate-filled message while still maintaining the appearance of justice and fairness. Code language is present. We must recognize it and call attention to it.

3 Responses to You Know What You’re Saying
  1. Eileen Kradel Reply

    Thank you, your comments are critically important today and need wide dissemination. In 1988 after graduating from law school , my children in graduate schools; a retiring Westsrk board member asked me to run for the seat. I said I did not know anything about running an election. I ran for Fort Smith school board several years before that and did not have an opponent until the last minute , A CEO of a local company was drafted at the last minute after a letter to the editor called me a yankee liberal. The CEO gave his employees a half day off to go vote. I lost , he never served and another community member was selected by the board to replace him. Finally, I agreed to run for the Westark Board, a county wide election, again no opponent until the last minute until a CEO ( CEO in FS at the time synonymous with male) was drafted to run against me, friend Tom Barr a very nice man.
    I won by a few votes , Tom called me and said “ you know Eileen the Board members believe a man would be better for the job. I said, Tom, my friend what do you think? He said men work better together. After I expressed my disappointment in his views and my love for Westark , I told him sometimes there were worse things than a damn yankee in our community. I did win a reelection to the board and I have served on the U of A FS board since its inception. You struck a nerve with me. George McGill is an outstanding man. I do not live in Fort Smith and although my husband is still working in Fort Smith we live in another city., I left a job as a VP at St. Edward when the CEO in a meeting with two other men said to me “aren’t you being a little hysterical about this issue. A tue life and death issue, by the way ;
    but as luck would have it, I was recruited for a job at Washington Regional and took it immediately despite the commute. Thank you!

  2. Shane Reply

    You nailed it, Kevin. Now let’s just hope those who are saying these things have the grace to realize what they’re doing and think hard about their motivations.

  3. […] We have to ask why. (See: You Know What You Are Saying) […]... kevinathompson.com/question-for-my-baptist-friends

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