Part 7, the Code

Don’t start here! Start with Part 1.

Before we go on, I have to point out something essential to understanding Bannon and the alt-right. But, really, it’s a building block to understanding all human interactions. We all know what I’m about to discuss, but we might only know it on a subconscious level.

Most of what we communicate comes not through the words themselves but through the context of the communication, through body language and tone of voice. If I’m at your house for dinner and you ask what I’d like to drink, I might answer, “sweet tea?” Though the words themselves indicate exactly what I’d like, the questioning tone also conveys information. I’m really saying, “sweet tea if you have it.” I could have said “sweet tea” without any question in my voice, and the meaning is similar, but more forceful.

Context is important, too. What if you and I have an inside joke. We don’t drink sweet tea. Maybe we’ve made fun of sweet tea drinkers many times in the past. My “sweet tea?” answer prompts connection between us at our shared joke, and we laugh together. Anyone watching the exchange, not in on the joke, would be perplexed at why this is so funny. You and I, however, communicated a vast amount with two small words.

If we do this when others are around, we exclude others. This might be intentional or unintentional, but the exclusion is a communication as well. It’s subtext. It’s classic in-group versus out-group psychology. We feel connected. Safe. “They” feel perplexed. Obviously, this particular example reveals only a very mild exclusion, but exclusion nonetheless.

If a third person in the room said, “What’s that sweet tea thing about?” Our choosing to let him in on our inside joke conveys meaning; we’re letting him into our circle. But if we deny that there is an inside joke, we convey another meaning entirely. In fact, since the meaning of “sweet tea” is all subtext, we could even deny that anything happened.

“What are you talking about? You’re oversensitive.”

“Yeah, I mean all she did is ask for sweet tea.”

This deniability is passive-aggressive. Gaslighting. And we could do it because the meaning of the interaction is all subtext.

We communicate in this way in both our positive and negative interactions. All day. Every day.

Sometimes the code is obvious to just about everyone. A wedding ring, worn (in the US) on the ring finger of the left hand, is code. It’s a symbol, and it conveys meaning.

Sometimes the code is hidden, and only a few people can decode it. For example, 88 is code for Heil Hitler – H is the 8th letter of the alphabet. If you want to communicate to other white supremacists but you don’t want a swastika tattoo, 88 is safer. It’s coded.

Before the dinner, I did some research into Bannon. He does not explicitly reveal a racist message. He doesn’t use the n-word. He doesn’t say that white people are the supreme race. But he doesn’t have to. He, and others like him, use code.

Alt-right, for example, is code for white supremacy. It’s coded, so it’s deniable. And I have no doubt that some people who say they’re alt-right do not mean that they’re bigoted. Because it’s coded, some people misunderstand the code. It’s deniable. They can even deny it to themselves, and they can call us crazy and snowflakes when we point it out. Because when you explicitly state the underlying message, reveal the code, they’re threatened.


Follow Dr. Cleaveland on Twitter: @CHSPolitico

One thought on “Part 7, the Code

  1. Thank you for your detailed and insightful account of your experience at the Bannon dinner. I think you and your friend are both “kickass women.” You do a great job of painting a picture with you words. That is the sign of a truly great writer.


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