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Thursday, March 21, 2013

Storyteller's Rulebook #173: Know How to Dog Whistle

Writing dialogue for corrupt politicians and businessmen can be hard.  On the one hand, they rarely say, “So I’m corrupt, so what?” or, “The law doesn’t apply to us!” or “We may have to threaten violence,” or “Screw the voters,” but on the other hand, they don’t simply deny everything either.  Skilled corrupters know how to express all of the above sentiments without actually saying those words.

How do you master the language of the corrupt?  You read their repugnant memoirs, or books of interviews with them.  Whenever I do so, I add to a glossary of corruption that I’ve slowly been building:
  • Laws we don’t like = Legalities
  • Rules we don’t like = Niceties, “Marquis of Queensbury rules”
  • Lawful or non-violent = Risk-averse
  • Our scandal = A “flap”
  • Brutal and/or illegal  = Uncompromising, “Not afraid to take the gloves off”
  • Brutality= vigor
  • Brutalized = “cracked down on”
  • Accountability = “The blame game”, Nitpicking
  • Our critics = Hand-wringers
  • We lied = “We showed a lack of candor”
  • We screwed up = “Our plans were overtaken by events”
  • We chose evil = “Our choices were unattractive”
  • Criticism = Negative thinking
There’s a great line in “Havana Nocturne”, T.J. English’s wonderful history of the American mafia in Cuba:  Santo Trafficante’s men would threaten people by saying, “You’d better be careful or the man with green eyes will come and see you.”

Actual dog whistles are supposedly out of the range of human hearing, but they aren’t really.  We don’t hear them, but we feel them: they make the hair on the back of our neck stand up.  That’s what so great about this language.  I would sound innocuous in court, but in person its meaning is all too clear.

When writing dialogue for anyone who’s breaking or bending the law, write as if an incorruptible cop is sitting right there in the room, listening to everything. These guys talk as if that were true in real life, not just out of fear of wiretaps or snitches, but also because they know it’s a lot more chilling for their victims if they say it without saying it.

10 comments:

christinembird said...

Corporate villainy has its own vocabulary.

See: Jamie Dimon's reference to a $6 billion loss as a "tempest in a teapot."

As any scandal starts to brew, it is invariably a woman who is sent out to deny any wrongdoing.

Only when the case is about to go to trial does one of the male higher-ups appear, always to declare, "We look forward to the opportunity to clear our name." (Common variant: "We welcome the chance . . .")

christinembird said...


HSBC is not "into laundering drug money." They had weak controls on the transfer of funds between banks.

-- a defense of the banksters, posted among the comments on a NYT editorial

j.s. said...

"These guys talk as if that were true in real life, not just out of fear of wiretaps or snitches, but also because they know it’s a lot more chilling for their victims if they say it without saying it."

There's another important motivation for all this euphemistic dialogue that christine is getting at in her comments and that you've touched on before in other posts and it's simply this: that the bad guys don't see themselves as bad guys. They are the heroes in their own stories, doing what -- from their point of view -- needs to be done to deliver justice, security, economic success, etc.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

It even works in domestic situations.

Cruelty = "Tough Love"
Insults = "Just being honest," "Telling it like it is"

They're not dog whistles - they're lies the people tell themselves so they can remain the hero in their own story. But they're closely related.

A fascinating part of human nature is how someone can be full of crap and both know it and deny it at the same time.

Matt Bird said...

...But I think the truism that every villain is the hero of his own story is an overstatement. Is this really always true?

Did Santo Trafficante really think that he was doing nothing wrong?

Even look at Dick Cheney-- Sure, he thought his actions were ultimately righteous and justified, but he had no interest in "playing the hero." To this day, he loves being hated and clearly amuses himself by doing intentionally contemptuous things. Listen to him speak: hate emanates from every pore in his body. That's no accident.

Too many movies these days overly justify their villains. Once again, I return to Green Lantern and John Carter. In both cases there was a distant, unmotivated god-like villain who we rarely saw, but the main onscreen villain (the god's patsy) was, as far as I could tell, a perfectly-nice guy in a bad situation.

In fact, if those movies had let me choose who to root for, I would have chosen Peter Sarsgard over Ryan Reynolds and Dominick West over Taylor Kitsch, easily.

The writers of those movies didn't listen to how real-life bad people justify themselves, instead, they took the easy route: they *actually* justified their villains. But then why are we supposed to root against them? Why are we supposed to root for the hero?

Why are we sitting in this super-loud theater feeling nothing?

James Kennedy said...

Could "Why are we sitting in this super-loud theater feeling nothing?" be the name of your book? Or at least the name of your emo ballad?

j.s. said...

Whoa, what happened to the Matt Bird who urged us not to judge our characters?

I don't know about Trafficante's motives, but I do know that many other real-life and movie gangsters didn't see themselves as doing what's wrong so much as doing what's necessary to provide for their families and survive in a game that was otherwise rigged against them because of their race, poverty, immigrant status, etc.

It's hard for me to see Cheney as cartoonishly evil either. I'm pretty sure he saw himself as heroic, making the hard calls that were necessary to secure the country in one of America's darkest hours and publicly playing the bad cop to deliberately draw attention and criticism away from President Bush.

It seems to me that part of what you're wrestling with is how to accurately portray a bad guy who truly and deeply knows he's bad and doesn't care. But for me that's a very small percentage of humanity, most of them bonafide psychopaths.

Matt Bird said...

But… But… But… When I refer to judging characters, I’m referring to a failure of *empathy*, such as thinking, “That person is doing that bad thing for no reason, just because he’s a bad person.” Empathy requires us to say, “Everybody has their reasons, even if they’re not good reasons. Why is this person like this?”

A writer (and the audience) should have empathy for every character, hero or villain, but the difference is that we’ll usually have *sympathy* for the hero and we should almost never have sympathy for the villain.

No, Cheney is not “cartoonishly evil” (aka, shallow, two-dimensional, no depth, no motivation, just hates for the sake of hate), he’s real-life evil (a person with deep convictions and complex motivations who chose to have people tortured and killed because he hated and feared them, even though he knew that he was violating his country’s laws and most common notions of morality and ethics). He has his own personal reasons and self-justifications for everything he did, I’m sure. If I was writing about him, I would have to explore them and understand them. Even if I don’t write about him, just in order to be a good person myself, I have *assume* that he has his reasons. But I also have a responsibility to identify evil choices as evil choices, instead of just saying that everything is relative.

Now let’s look at your final point:

“It seems to me that part of what you're wrestling with is how to accurately portray a bad guy who truly and deeply knows he's bad and doesn't care. But for me that's a very small percentage of humanity, most of them bonafide psychopaths.”

I pretty much totally disagree with this: In fact, I think the exact opposite is true. Let’s look at three TV dog-killers:

Patty Hewes (Glenn Close) kills her client’s dog and frames her opponent for it at the end of the pilot episode of “Damages”. Does she think that this is the right thing to do? No. She knows that she’s chosen to do an evil thing. Does she think that her larger goal is justified? Well, she keeps saying that her goal is justice for her defrauded working-class class-action clients…but we can tell that she doesn’t really believe that anymore. She still pays lip service to idealism, but she’s basically just a shark at this point, gobbling up money and power for the sake of money and power. Like Walter White, the only motivation she has left is spite (for a world that she feels is unfair to powerful women). Unlike Walter, however, she feels guilt for what she’s doing, and occasionally breaks down crying when she realizes what a wretch she is, which proves that she’s not a psychopath.

Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey) one-ups Patty by killing a dog in the opening minutes of “House of Cards”. Does he think that this is the right thing to do? Yes, as he explains directly to the camera, he thinks that the dog needed to be put out of its suffering. Does he think this makes him a good guy? No. He knows that his actions are cold, Machiavellian and unlovable. Does he think of himself as a good guy in general? No, like Patty, he accepts that he is ruled mostly by his own petty hatreds. Unlike Patty, he thinks that he can still do some good politically, but only once he has total power, and he’s more than willing to do things that he himself considers to be evil in order to get that power. Unlike Patty, he cannot cry about his wretched state, but his narration to us lets us know that he is aware (and slightly regretful) that he is hurting people, which, once again, shows us that he is not a psychopath.

(continued in part 2)

Matt Bird said...

(continued from part 1)

Now let’s look at King Joffrey on “Game of Thrones”, who orders his fiancé’s wolf killed, giving him an honorary membership in the dog-killing club. Joffrey is the only one of the three who *does* think of himself as a hero because he’s the only one of the three who *is* a psychopath. Joffrey is incapable of feeling empathy-- incapable of understanding that the needs and wants of others are equally valid as his needs and wants. The dog hurt him, and so it dies, and if his fiancé disagrees, then she’s an idiot, because she should realize that it’s the job of everything in the universe to please Joffrey. Unlike Patty and Francis, he *truly* believes that he is hero of his story: he thinks that he’s never done anything wrong, and that everybody loves him, because he’s their king.

Now don’t get me wrong, *we* have empathy for Joffrey: we see that he was purposely spoiled by his sadistic parents, who saw him as their weapon of revenge against the world. Joffrey is merely what he was raised to be. So we have empathy for him, but no sympathy, and we recognize that he will never have any empathy for others.

So I feel that, in general, *only* psychopaths see themselves as the hero of their story, while corrupt people, like Patty and Francis (and, yes, Cheney) think of themselves as people who have decided to willfully transgress society’s commonly-accepted notions of morality and ethics for their own personal reasons, even if that means that others will think of them as “The bad guy”.

(Wow, that got long! One big request: I have only seen the first four episodes of “House of Cards” and I’m on season two, episode two of “Game of Thrones”, so PLEASE don’t spoil anything I haven’t seen!) (For that matter, I only watched the first season of “Damages”, but I’m probably not going to finish it, so spoil away.)

Anonymous said...

I beg you to offer the Storyteller's Rulebook as an eBook. Please. On bended knee.