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Language As A Powerful Tool

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The phrase ‘The pen is mightier than the sword’ is a common epithet that extolls the power of words. It is correct that it does; language is one of the most powerful tools a person can wield. Language is as capable of carrying a person to greatness as it is capable of crucifying them. But is it always for the best that words have such power? After all, any tool can be used for ill pursuits. Language, though frequently credited with virtue, can also be a terrible weapon, depending on the context in which it is used and the context which it references. The casualties of context can be vast. For instance, when a politician, a highly public figure, uses language that normalizes racism, the effects can be observed across an entire voting base. Or, when one subset of a populace demonizes and degrades another through the use of hate speech, repercussions ripple across millions of lives.

Politicians are known for using words as weapons in order to beguile the public. Sometimes this is to the benefit of society, when a politician convinces in order to bring out the best in a nation. Frequently, however, people in positions of power promote agendas that are to the detriment of society. One tactic used by some politicians is called dog whistle politics, which Emile Therien defines as “political messaging employing coded language that appears to mean one thing to the general public but has a different or more specific resonance for a targeted sub-group”. This works through the use of specific phrases, which, while seemingly innocuous, tell racists exactly what a politician’s stance is, appeal to unconscious bias in others, and entirely slide under the radar for many.

Specifically, the tactics of dog whistle politics are used by politicians in person and in advertisements. A notorious example of dog whistle politics in advertising is the advertisement used to promote George H W Bush in the 1988 election cycle. This ad featured an African-American man by the name of Willie Horton, who was convicted of both murder and rape, and accused Bush’s opponent of being soft on crime (Political ad: “Willie Horton”, 1988). The imagery depicted in this ad and the content it describes “played into white fear and African-American stereotypes”, and so in the eyes of supporters, connected Bush’s opponent with a lenient stance on crime, and connected African-Americans with violence (Criss, CNN). This careful use of word choice and imagery allowed Bush’s campaign to profit off of the racists sentiments of some voters without seeming to directly support them, which in turn allowed Bush to retain the support of voters that did not want to be associated with racism.

In more recent times, other politicians have used similar language-based tactics to evoke racist sentiments. President Trump frequently uses dog whistle tactics in his speeches and remarks. For instance, on the campaign trail, prior to his election, Trump made the following statement at a political rally: “When Mexico sends its people… They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with [them] … They’re rapists,” (Washington Post Staff, 2015). This word choice is a fairly simple example of dog whistle politics; first, Trump made a broad, negative statement about Mexicans, stating that many or all of them are a), not good people, and b), rapists. This alone would not qualify as dog whistle politics; it’s not subtly racist, it’s just racist. However, following this statement, Trump made a vague, appeasing sort of caveat, stating that “And some, I assume, are good people,” (Washington Post Staff, 2015). This provides the sympathizing viewer the moral distance to justify Trump’s remarks, and agree with them, without directly admitting to or claiming racism. However, it is the specific phrase ‘I assume’ that truly makes Trump’s words powerful; it completely delegitimizes the idea of non-criminal Mexicans in the mind of the beholder, but does so in a way that could be played off as a mistake. It is that following statement that made Trump’s statement not just a racist appeal, but a tactic that normalizes discrimination.

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So what is the driving mechanism of dog whistle politics? It is clear that all of the power derived from these tactics is rooted in indirect meaning and deniability. In order to convey socially unacceptable meanings, politicians rely on context. In the context of Horton’s race and the negative stereotypes some people associate with African-Americans, the Willie Horton ad is pretty obviously race baiting; outside of that, it may appear to simply be an advertisement declaring a candidate’s stance on crime. And it is herein that we can see the true power of subjective language; since there are multiple interpretations of the advertisement, depending on the context from which you view it, this allows the politician using the ad (and any of their supporters) to pull a sort of gaslighting and claim that any racist sentiments that you view in the ad are your own projections, and that you are seeing what you are expecting. Without this subjectiveness and context-based understanding, the ad would be much less potent; as Jennifer Saul notes, most people don’t want to be thought of as or think of themselves as racist, so when they are unlikely to agree with obviously and indisputably racist sentiments (Saul, 2017). Based on the power of dog whistle politics, it is clear that a large part of what turns words into weapons is their subjective context.

Although one might be tempted to think that the context of language is a subtle machination, based on how context is used for power in dog whistle politics, it is also completely overt in certain applications. The context of language doesn’t only grant indirect power; it is also what gives slurs and hate speech their direct, threatening, offensiveness. Slurs are a subset of hate speech, which is defined as “words or symbols that are offensive, intimidating, or harassing, and/or that incite violence, hatred, or discrimination on the basis of a… distinguishing status” (Shelton, 2015). The very definition of hate speech elucidates the power of words; it is speech that incites violence, and intimidates. Therefore, the language of hate is powerful because of the effects it wields and is associated with; even if a person delivering a slur is not immediately also delivering physical harm, the threat is inherently present.

Historically, hate speech has led to severe violence. In multiple instances, an increase in the frequency, severity, and openness of hate speech has preceded extreme racial and ethnic violence. A particularly well-known and infamous illustration of this is the massive hate propaganda movement led by the government in Nazi Germany leading up to, and during the Holocaust. The Nazi Party and its supporters dehumanized Jews by calling them subhuman, and refering to them as rats (Smith, 2011). The results of this dehumanization are horrifying; millions of Jews and others deemed undesirable were killed, and many of them painfully. The causal link between language and violence is evident; as David Smith says in his book in reference to the propaganda promoted by the Nazi Party, “thinking of humans as less than human paves the way for atrocity” (Smith, 2011). The violence and horror perpetrated by the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s was caused by the dehumanization provided by hate speech. The weaponization of language during the Holocaust was no isolated incident; derogatory speech has preceded and encouraged violence throughout human history. In the 1990s, the Rwandan Genocide was the culmination of years of escalation in discrimination against the Tutsi, much of which was codified in language (Lynne, 2012). Hate in language has frequently heralded hateful actions.

Language is verbal violence; a single phrase can encapsulate centuries of hatred and subjugation. This intense concentration of context can be used to assert power. As Ishani Maitra states in her essay Subordinating Speech, hate speech can give the speaker authority by removing the authority of the recipient (2012). Slurs and other forms of hate speech can do this because of the context they carry. Hate speech is an inherent threat of violence. As previously demonstrated, hate speech has long been associated with acts of extreme violence, such as genocides, so when a speaker utilizes hate speech, they are invoking a history of extreme violence. In essence, the speaker is saying, “I would hurt you”. Hate speech does more than subordinate the individual; by referencing societal prejudices and long-standing norms of discrimination, the use of hate speech reinforces these concepts. As Michael Moore said, the “ use of some words and expressions… shapes [reality]; in addition to recording past prejudices, it also legitimizes future ones,” (2002). By continuing to uphold language with roots in subjugation, we are continuing to subjugate.

For centuries, language has been a powerful tool. Politicians have spoken words that inspire thousands to violence, and the subjectivity of language has allowed some of them get away with it. Ordinary people fling words that have effects that they understand, but contexts that they do not. Language has been a weapon. Words with cruel histories have preluded violence, and their use perpetuates fear. Despite this bloody history, communication is not a crime. After all, though any tool in the wrong hands is a weapon, the tool itself cannot contain evil. Words, though frequently wielded to harm, are equally powerful in healing. No matter their motivation, however, every human should remember the force with which they speak.

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Language As A Powerful Tool. (2022, February 17). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 4, 2023, from
“Language As A Powerful Tool.” Edubirdie, 17 Feb. 2022,
Language As A Powerful Tool. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 4 Feb. 2023].
Language As A Powerful Tool [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Feb 17 [cited 2023 Feb 4]. Available from:
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