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What Dog Whistles Permeate Your Workplace?


What Dog Whistles Permeate Your Workplace

As a reader of my articles, you’re likely a believer in the concept of inclusion, or you’re researching aspects of diversity and inclusion.

One aspect of inclusion that deserves some attention this presidential election season is coded language. Some people refer to this as a dog whistle.

According to an article in the Oct. 24 issue of Time magazine, political language is full of code words, sometimes known as dog whistles. Sociolinguist Ben Zimmer says it’s “speaking to a particular audience that’s supposed to pick up on a frequency that others won’t hear.” Often, these terms say not much on the surface, but underneath attempt to speak to the real issue at stake, according to Time.

Consider this example: Republican Vice Presidential candidate Mike Pence refers to “criminal aliens” to focus the political debate on safety, while his opponent, Democrat Tim Kaine, describes some immigrants as those who had to come here without documents. For Kaine, the political debate is on humanity, painting the United States as a welcoming nation of immigrants.

Here’s another example of dog whistles: Republicans might call a shooting scene one of Islamic terrorism (a national security issue), while Democrats refer to the same incident as a mass shooting (a gun issue).

The article contends that dog whistle language is being used strategically and deliberately. To help “sniff out” dog whistles, and speak and write in neutral language, Time provided several examples of how the Associated Press Stylebook recommends handling “loaded” phrases:

  • In 2000, AP recommended dropping terms “pro-life” and “pro-choice” in favor of “anti-abortion” and “pro-abortion rights.”
  • In 2006, AP identified “gay” as the preferred term instead of “homosexual,” which can be viewed as derogatory.
  • In 2012, AP recommended dropping the suffix -phobia, which can suggest that someone has an irrational fear that qualifies as a mental illness. Instead of using words like “Islamophobia,” replace the labels with details.
  • In 2013, AP recommended that phrases such as “illegal immigrant” and “undocumented immigrant” not be used. Describing the person’s situation is preferred.
  • And last year, AP recommended skipping words like “skeptic” or “denier” for global warming articles. Scientists, Time wrote, said “skeptics” are involved in inquiry and research, while “denier” has the connotation of denying tragedies like the Holocaust. Instead, AP recommended “climate-change doubters.”

Just as the English language changed to become more inclusive of women in traditionally male-dominated careers — police officer instead of policeman and firefighter instead of fireman, for example — it’s changing again to guard against terms that paint negative or derogatory pictures.

Are you focused on ensuring that you speak and write in neutral language? With dog whistles all around us this political season, it can be a tough assignment.   

What kind of messages is your workplace language sending to employers, customers and others, despite your best intentions? Take steps to consider and monitor your unconscious biases. Be inclusive!

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