How to respond to dog whistles

Oct 21 JDN 2458413

Political messaging has grown extremely sophisticated. The dog whistle technique is particularly powerful one: it allows you to say the same thing to two different groups and have them each hear what they wanted to hear. The term comes from the gadget used in training canines, which emits sounds at a frequency which humans can’t hear but dogs can. Similar concepts have been around for a long time, but the word wasn’t used for this specific meaning until the 1990s.

There was once a time when politicians could literally say different things to different groups, but mass media has made that effectively impossible. When Mitt Romney tried to do this, it destroyed his (already weak) campaign. So instead they find ways to convey two different meanings, while saying the same words.

Classic examples of this include “law and order” and “states’ rights”, which have always carried hidden racist connotations, yet on their face sound perfectly reasonable. “Family values” is another one.

Trump is particularly inelegant at this; his dog whistles often seem to drop into the audible frequency range, as when he called undocumented immigrants (or possibly gang members?) “animals” and tweeted about “caravans” of immigrants, and above all when he said “they’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists”. (Frankly, does that even count as a dog whistle?) He’s a little less obvious in his deployment of “globalist” as a probable anti-Semitic slur.

How should we respond to this kind of coded language?

It’s not as simple as you might think. It’s not always easy to tell what is a dog whistle. Someone talking about crime could be trying to insinuate something about minorities… or, they could just be talking about crime. Someone complaining about immigration could be trying to dehumanize immigrants… or, they could just want a change in our border policy. Accusations of “globalism” could be coded anti-Semitism… or they could just be nationalism.
It’s also easy to accuse someone of using dog whistles even if they probably aren’t: It is now commonplace for the right wing to argue that “common-sense gun control” means confiscating all handguns (when it in fact means universal background checks, mandatory safety classes, and perhaps assault weapon bans and magazine limits, all of which are quite popular even among gun owners), or to argue that “safe, legal, and rare” is just a Trojan horse for unrestricted free abortion (when in fact “safe, legal, and rare” is the overwhelming majority view among Americans). Indeed, it’s quite probable that many of the things that the left wing has taken as dog whistles by Trump were actually overreactions—Trump is bigoted, but not especially so by the standards of old White Republican men. The best reasons to want Trump out of office involve his authoritarianism, his corruption, and his incompetence, not his bigotry. Foreign policy and climate change should be issues that overwhelm basically everything else—these are millions of lives on the line—and they are the two issues that Trump gets most decisively wrong.

The fact that it can be difficult to tell which statements are dog-whistles is not a bug but a feature: It provides plausible deniability.

If you can structure your speech so that it will be heard by your base as supporting a strong ideological platform, but when the words are analyzed they will be innocuous enough that no one can directly prove your extremism, you can have your cake and eat it too. Even if journalists go on to point out the dog whistles in your speech, moderates on your side of the fence might not hear the same dog whistles, and then just become convinced that the journalists are overreacting. And they might even be overreacting.

Instead, I think there are two things we need to do, which are distinct but complementary.’

1. Ask for clarification.

Whether you are in a personal conversation with a friend who is spouting talking points, or a journalist interviewing a politician running for office, there will come opportunities where you can directly respond to a potential dog whistle.
Do not accuse them of using a dog whistle—even if you are confident that they are. That will only make them defensive, and make you appear to be the aggressor. Instead, ask them firmly, but calmly:

What exactly do you mean by that statement?”

If they ignore the question or try to evade it, ask again, a little more firmly. If they evade again, ask again. Keep asking until they answer you or literally force you to shut up. Be confident, but calm and poised. Now they look like the aggressor—and above all, they sound like they have something to hide.

Note also that if it turns out not to be a dog whistle, they will likely not be offended by your request and will have a perfectly reasonable clarification. For example:

“What did you mean when you said you’re worried about Muslim immigrants?”

“Well, I mean that Muslim societies often have very regressive norms surrounding gender and LGBT rights, and many Muslim immigrants have difficulty assimilating into our liberal values. I think we need to spend more effort finding ways to integrate Muslims into our community and disabuse them of harmful cultural norms.”

“What did you mean when you said you are worried about law and order?”

“I mean that gang violence in several of our inner cities is really out of control, and we need to be working on both investing more in policing and finding better methods of crime prevention in order to keep these communities safe.”

“What ‘states’ rights’ are you particularly concerned about, Senator?”

“I don’t like that the federal government thinks it can impose laws against marijuana based on an absurdly broad reading of the Interstate Commerce Clause. I don’t think it’s right that legitimate businesses in California and Colorado have to operate entirely in cash because federal regulations won’t let them put their money into banks without fear of having it confiscated.”

You may even find that you still disagree with the clarified statement, but hopefully it can be a reasonable disagreement, rather than a direct conflict over fundamental values.

2. State your own positive case.

This is one you can probably do even if you don’t actually get the opportunity to engage directly with people on the other side.

I was actually surprised to learn this, but apparently the empirical data shows that including messages of social justice in your political platform makes it more popular, even among moderates.
This means that we don’t have to respond to innuendo with innuendo—we can come out and say that we think a given policy is bad because it will hurt women or Black people. Economic populism is good too, but we don’t need to rely entirely upon that.

To be clear, we should not say that the policy is designed to hurt women or Black people—even if we think that is likely to be true—for at least two reasons: First, we can’t actually prove that, except in very rare cases, so it makes our argument inherently more tendentious; and second, it makes our whole mode of argumentation more aggressive and less charitable. We should always at least consider the possibility that our opponent’s intentions are noble, and unless the facts utterly force us to abandon that view it should probably be our working assumption.

This means that we don’t even necessarily have to come out and challenge dog whistles. We just need to make a better positive case ourselves. While they are making vague, ambiguous claims about “cleaning up our cities” and “making America great”, we can lay out explicit policy plans for reducing unemployment, poverty, and carbon emissions.

Hillary Clinton almost did this—but she didn’t do it well enough. She relied too heavily on constituents being willing to read detailed plans on her website, instead of summarizing them in concise, pithy talking points to put in headlines. Her line Because we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business, right?” was indeed taken out of contextbut she should have pushed harder by making an actual slogan, like “End coal burning—save coal communities.” (I literally came up with that in five minutes. She had hundreds of professional campaign staff working for her and they couldn’t do better?) The media did butcher her statements—but she didn’t correct them by putting slogans on yard signs or giving stump speeches in Appalachia.

Indeed, the news media didn’t do her any favors—they spent literally more time talking about her emails than every actual policy issued combined, and not by a small margin. But we can’t rely on the news media—and we don’t have to, in the age of blogs and social media. Instead of assuming that everyone already agrees with us and we will win because we deserve to, we need to be doing what actually works at conveying our message and making sure that we win by the largest margin possible.

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