When Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne recently announced she was refusing Toronto’s request to toll its roads, she gave a clear reason: it wouldn't be fair to ask drivers to pay until better transit options were in place as alternatives. Few believed she was being entirely truthful. The far more likely explanation, according to just about every political observer: angry 905-area MPPs in the Liberal party, fearing enormous pushback from their constituents, were pressuring her to nix the proposal.
Such duplicity, however, is now the default in politics. A policy is decided upon for a host of complex reasons to do with power, votes, and strategic jockeying, but when it is announced or discussed publicly, it is always phrased in terms of public interest. Following politics has thus become like reading the plot of a mystery where we are left to decode and interpret a series of hidden clues. At times, it’s almost enough to make one feel that no one is ever telling the whole truth, and so nothing can ever be taken at face value.
In some sense, this has always been true. But in moments of political turmoil, the gap between implicit and explicit meaning takes on a more sinister quality and can be used to publicly signal things that were once considered unpalatable — even unintentionally.
Consider: Conservative leadership candidate Maxime Bernier recently tweeted out a meme about “the red pill,” a reference to a moment in the dystopian film the Matrix during which the hero is given a choice between a blue pill (which would allow him to revert to his previously comfortable dream-like state) and a red pill (which will reveal his true state, with all its attendant pain). It is a point about accepting the full measure of reality. But the red pill is also a symbol that has been adopted by anti-feminist and alt-right communities, and in those contexts means rejecting what they perceive as liberal, multicultural, or feminist orthodoxy. It’s hardly obscure either: the red pill community on Reddit has nearly 200,000 subscribers.
A minor storm of controversy followed Bernier's tweet; he was accused of covertly signalling to extremists. For his part, Bernier professed innocence, saying he only ever intended to refer to the movie. Prominent Canadian commentators also came to his defence: professor Emmett Macfarlane and columnist Andrew Coyne each insisted that it was uncharitable to assume Bernier had sinister motives.
The actual truth, as is ever the case with politicians’ words, is something we will never know.
Yet this is precisely the problem in our current climate: the increased uncertainty around what things are actually intended mean that not only is extra care is required, but it’s also downright irresponsible to assume good faith. There is a reason that the once-obscure term dog-whistle politics — subtly coded messaging that means one thing to the mainstream but signals something more sinister to a small fringe — has become commonplace. The election of Donald Trump, in part on the back of his blunt, often inflammatory speech, appears to have emboldened those who peddle blatantly prejudiced rhetoric, which in turn has had the perverse effect of making subtle dog whistles both more common and more threatening.
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The upshot: a politician claiming she meant one thing even if it was interpreted otherwise is not a sufficient defence. Both media and the public need to hold public figures to account for the impact of their words — yes, even when that impact is unintentional.
This is so because Bernier’s tweet was simply the thin end of the wedge. Kellie Leitch, a fellow candidate for the Conservative leadership, has gained some notoriety for her proposal to screen immigrants and visitors to this country for so-called Canadian values. Ostensibly, it sounds like a reasonable plan. After all, pluralism works only if everyone abides by basic, agreed-upon principles. But the plan itself is impractical, insisting on face-to-face interviews for all visitors, while the questions posed to newcomers are easily defeated. (Why exactly would a terrorist answer questions honestly?)
The gap between Leitch’s rhetoric and the actual policy itself suggests that more is at work than merely “protecting Canadian values” — that instead, Leitch wants to impose a very specific set of values on all Canadians and label those who don’t play along as traitors or outsiders. The xenophobia powering Leitch’s ideas is obscured, but it must be drawn out.
Similarly, even in the unlikely scenario that Bernier (or the staff member who sent out the red pill message, if it wasn't him directly) didn’t know how "red pill" would be received, the very real possibility anti-feminists and racists would see it as a clarion call makes the use of such a meme nonetheless irresponsible.
In every society there are forces of xenophobia simmering just under the surface, waiting to be whipped into a foment. At times and in societies in which diversity is celebrated (even if only by lip service), most politicians cannot simply say racist and misogynistic things out loud. But when characters like Trump do say shocking things — such as that a Mexican-American judge is unfit to hear a case in which Trump is involved — the window of what is acceptable stretches slightly. Then, sensing an opportunity to entrench that opening, those who wish to turn societies back to nativism and prejudice seek out coded messages, and indeed, in the case of Leitch and others, receive them.
Of course, it would be easy to suggest the way to combat such forces is for politicians to just be truthful and straightforward. But that is unlikely to happen for a number of reasons, including the current state of polarization, the internet’s effects on public discourse, and the fact that unvarnished truth only very rarely makes for a popular political message. It is hard, after all, to imagine Wynne simply saying “I’m sorry, Toronto, but you can’t have toll roads because the 905 is too important to my re-election chances,” or even more far-fetched, Leitch simply saying she doesn’t want Muslims in Canada (unless they were willing to give up their identities as such).
Instead, the solution is more likely to come from media and voters. Vigilance is always necessary, but there are certain moments in history when dangerous movements threaten to take hold if not aggressively challenged. In such times, it becomes necessary to probe and critique politicians’ words even more vigorously than normal, taking them to task for the effect their language has; not to do so is to let pernicious messages and ideas spread. When public figures speak, the space between what is said and what is meant opens up a possibility — often to foster what is good in people, but sometimes, in which prejudice and vitriol pour in, coalesce, and grow in strength and influence.
Lately, the phrase “sunlight is the best disinfectant” has been popping up a lot. True, it’s a cliché, but one worth reflecting on. After all, it is exactly in the murky gap of weasel words and dog whistles that hate is nurtured, gaining ground inch by inch because each step forward can seem too innocuous to challenge.
It’s a trap, though. In times like these, in which some of our politicians are willing to descend into the dark, the best thing we can do is ruthlessly and diligently shine a light.
Navneet Alang is a technology and culture writer based in Toronto.
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