I’ve lived in the South for almost 30 years now. It took a lot of getting used to. Having grown up in the Michigan, I wasn’t used to a lot of things. Like the language differences.
I remember as a student youth minister in eastern Tennessee, a woman came up to me after church and said, “Would you care to go downstairs and ask Johnny to come up here?”
I said, “No, I wouldn’t care to at all.”
She turned around and walked out, obviously upset. So, I turned to someone standing next to me, and asked what had just happened.
“Well, you just told her you didn’t want to do what she asked you to do. I’d be mad too.”
“What?!? I just told her that I wouldn’t care to do it at all!”
“Exactly! Like I said, I’d be mad too.”
My wife had to help me decode that one.
I was also introduced to a new form of communication—passive aggression. Growing up in the midwest, I learned that you say what you mean, and you trust that people are also saying what they mean. If somebody says, “No, that’s fine. I’m fine. Really. It’s no problem at all,” I was taught that you’re supposed to believe people are giving you an accurate representation of their emotional disposition.
But I quickly learned (maybe “learned” is to strong, since I still stumble over this one) that some people don’t expect you to respond to what they say, but to what they mean.
I got into trouble a lot over this one. In ministry at a church I used to serve, people regularly told me that they were fine; they didn’t need me to come visit. They knew I was busy, and that their lumbago was just a nuisance, and that I could spend my time doing more constructive things.
Turns out, I didn’t run that through the Passive-Aggressive decoder ring some people were issued at birth, and I took them at their word—only to find out soon after that I had irreparably damaged a relationship by not coming to visit. Did I not understand just how serious lumbago is? Did I not love people at all? Why did I even get into ministry in the first place?
“I guess that will just have to be fine with me.”
“I was only joking.”
“I was only trying to be helpful when I told you that your ministry might be better received if you knew how to do your job.”
I still don’t deal well with passive aggressive people, but I know now what it’s amazing subtlety is meant to achieve: Attack with plausible deniability.
If you get mad at some passive aggressive comment, the commenter has perfectly positioned her/himself to be able to respond by saying, “I didn’t mean anything by it. Don’t be so sensitive.” In other words, people get to be jerks, but if you call them on it, they can protest that they weren’t saying what you thought you said, and that really you’re just too easily offended.
It’s the coward’s way of being an @$$#*(%.
I suspect that by now everyone has heard about the riff between the President-elect and Civil Rights icon, Rep. John Lewis. But a brief recap might be helpful:
John Lewis—who famously suffered a fractured skull at the hands of police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, during the March from Selm to Montgomery, Alabama—has publicly refused to attend the inauguration of the incoming president, saying, “I don’t see this president-elect as a legitimate president.”
The President-elect, seemingly constitutionally incapable of letting anything go, chose to let fly with the following stream of Tweets:
Congressman John Lewis should spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart (not to…… — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 14, 2017
—mention crime infested) rather than falsely complaining about the election results. All talk, talk, talk - no action or results. Sad! — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 14, 2017
Congressman John Lewis should finally focus on the burning and crime infested inner-cities of the U.S. I can use all the help I can get! — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 15, 2017
Now, the fact that today is the celebration of the ultimate Civil Rights icon, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., inevitably raises questions about how we treat those who have suffered and sacrificed in the pursuit of justice for people of color. It seems telling that the very sort of non-violent response to one’s enemies that characterized the fight for civil rights is brought into stark contrast by this exchange. But that’s not what I want to focus on.
What I find especially telling, beyond the overt hostility to the Civl Rights legend, is the way that the next president referred to Rep. Lewis’s constituents—as citizens of a post-apocalyptic hellscape—“which is in horrible shape and falling apart (not to mention crime infested).”
To those with ears to hear, this is what is commonly known as “dog whistle” politics—the thinking being that what is said is said at a frequency easily identifiable by those predisposed to hearing it. It’s a time tested way for groups to signal insiders, without alerting the rest of the public to what’s really being said.
In this case, reference to urban centers as “falling apart” and as “crime infested” is a way of signaling those who are already convinced that we’re now talking about black people.
Because everybody “knows” that black people live in ghettos, and that, left to their own devices, are incapable of rising above their impoverished lives, having to resort to the only thing left to them—addiction, destitution, and crime. And the great thing about dog whistle politics is that it leaves room for those who use it to deny that that’s what they’re doing.
“I’m not racist. I don’t have anything against black people. But, I mean, let’s be honest, have you ever seen how those people live?”
Dog whistle politics is immediately recognizable to the already converted as a form of code—wherein which bigots get to retain their bigotry, without ever having to own up to it. It gives people the freedom to condescend to people of color, while still looking thoughtful and concerned. It is the political equivalent of passive aggression.
“I’m sorry your feelings were hurt. I can’t imagine why you would ever think I’d say something bigoted. Why do you insist on always being so touchy?”
And therein lies the genius of the racist dog whistle/passive aggressive attack: If the people who’ve been wronged call attention to the offense, they’re immediately put on the defensive, forced to explain why they’re so thin-skinned and why they think so little of the offender that they would impute such nefarious motives.
The whole tactic seems bulletproof. The offender can always duck down behind the hedge of intention: “I didn’t mean anything by it.” Because really, how can you know another person’s heart?
“I didn’t mean it that way,” is too often the refuge of moral cowards.
Maybe you did, maybe you didn’t.
But it’s easy to root out if you know what you’re looking for. The test for determining whether or not someone intended to use dog whistle/passive aggressive tactics:
If you truly didn’t mean it that way, then you apologize for having been insensitive—and try to find out how you can correct your misunderstanding (i.e., you take responsibility for your words). If you did mean it that way, but don’t want to take responsibility for being an @$$#*(%, you harp on everyone else for being too sensitive (i.e., you place responsibility for misunderstanding your words on somebody else).
In the public kerfuffle between PEOTUS and a hero of the Civil Rights movement, John Lewis, I’ll let you decide which is which.
I have to be quick to add that passive aggression isn’t unknown in the part of the world I grew up in, but it is (in my experience) somewhat less prevalent there than in the South. Don’t email me. ↩