By Rev. Paul Graves
In 1876, English scientist Francis Galton invented the dog whistle. It produced sounds in the ultrasonic range, heard by dogs and cats but not by humans.
“Dog whistle” has also become a common political term to refer to certain code language that signals a message to certain people but not always to others. Every political season, including today’s, is filled with dog whistles.
Every political group has its own collection of dog whistles (including religious dog whistles). Normally, they mean to uplift the in-crowd and put down some “other” person or group.
Rarely is a dog whistle meant to benefit society as a whole. It is meant to divide people, to disenfranchise people.
But when a dog whistle’s code is too subtle, what I now call a “dog siren” is put into play. In recent weeks, I became aware of Minden, Nevada, and its history as a “sundown town.” (I grew up in a “sundown town,” Kellogg, Idaho, so my curiosity was aroused when I read about Minden.)
An early 20th-century town ordinance forbade Native Americans from staying in Minden after sundown. Eventually, the town’s siren blew out a daily reminder of the ordinance. Even today, the siren still blows, though many residents are adamant the siren no longer has that historical impact.
Not all Native American residents of Minden would agree. The siren still reminds them they aren’t really welcome in their own community by some others. When a dog whistle is too subtle, fire up the “dog siren!”
As I look at the overwhelming number of political/religious issues in play during this 2022 election season, I hear some dog whistles, and I hear some dog sirens. To my ears, they’re all disgusting and disturbing. They signal to me that our American democracy is in trouble.
One of the consistent tactics that whistles and sirens use is disinformation. This tactic isn’t used exclusively by one political party or another, by one religious group or another, but I honestly see more of it used by extremist Republican candidates and their supporters, who so often flaunt their Christian credentials.
In my understanding, disinformation is a deliberate distortion of facts and truth. It increases democracy’s fragility.
So what can we do with the dog whistles, dog sirens and disinformation we’re surrounded by in the two weeks before Election Day? First, realize those whistles and sirens aren’t meant to distort your hearing. They’re meant to distort your hearts.
Then, do your homework with a sense of fearless urgency. Don’t let dog whistles, dog sirens or disinformation stop you from looking reasonably at the issues and candidates that concern you. Decide if the political and religious messages you see are valid – or toxic – for you.
Then, vote as an informed voter!
You might also consider this core principle I’ve shared before from Richard Rohr’s Center for Action and Contemplation: The best criticism of the bad is to practice the better.
Our American democracy is clearly at a significant crossroads. We could too easily take the road toward political authoritarianism.
We must find ways to “practice the better” that our historic democratic values remind us we can and must practice.
If you can vote before or on Nov. 8, please do so! Your vote counts, even if your vote puts you in the minority. Your vote lets the majority know you are alive and determined.
If you can’t vote for some reason, encourage your family members and friends to vote. Whoever votes is speaking out. You’re not being silent about what is important to you.
Don’t be silent! VOTE!
The Rev. Paul Graves serves as the chair of the Council on Older Adult Ministries for the Pacific Northwest Conference of The United Methodist Church.