Quite often in the world of politics, we hear of a politician, news anchor, or pundit “dog whistling” to a specific crowd. The examples they give of this would be things such as President Trump claiming that Hillary Clinton secretly met with international bankers to work towards destroying U.S. sovereignty for the sake of gaining wealth for her and her friends. Because of the terms “secret meetings” and “international bankers,” it became assumed that his comments came from anti-Semitic rhetoric and he was dog-whistling neo-nazis. Occasionally they’re right, occasionally they’re wrong. Today on Bad Arguments I’m going to pick this concept apart and explain why this accusation tends to be, but isn’t always, empty.
I’ll start off by explaining exactly what dog-whistling is. The concept is simple: a speaker uses coded language in order to appeal to a group of people without specifically addressing them. Usually, when this is supposedly done it is primarily from a racial slant. Either the speaker will employ this type of language knowing they’ll gain a particular emotional response from a crowd, or a particular crowd will assume that some double meaning was hidden in their words. From the getgo, there are a few issues with this idea on both sides of the fence.
From The Speaker
It’s no secret that outside of family members at Thanksgiving no one better employs appeals to emotion than politicians. Every bit of their language and delivery is designed to garner support for their stances and ideals, and for their audience to ignore and move on from their faults. Empty rhetoric about “family values” and “the good old days” elicits a certain type of emotional response from an audience, and reinforces and stirs specific sets of ideas in other groups. When you hear the phrase “chain migration” you may understand it for what it is: a tendency of migrants to go where their former countrymen had gone before them. Chain migration is how we have all of the Chinatowns and Little Italys all over. Now if a politician is using the term while talking about immigration reform it could very well set off anti-immigration groups. The phrasing of “chain migration” would be treated as dog-whistling because it creates a mental image of an endless line of linked migrants entering the country en masse.
It’s a clever use of language to bypass the social restrictions that prevent politicians from addressing nonmainstream groups, or groups that would negatively impact them if the association became clear. It’s hard to emotionally grab a group without talking to them in a direct way. In Ohio, during the 2012 election cycle, the Obama campaign ran an ad that said that Mitt Romney was “not one of us.” This was called dog-whistling as Ohio at the time was only 0.52% Mormon; the faith that Mitt belongs to. This form of dog-whistling, while being little more than an appeal to emotion and tribalism, worked here to reach out to the Christians and highlight the divide even further.
From The Listener
It needs to be noted that all of the above hinges on a very difficult thing to prove. In order to claim that a statement or phrase is a dog-whistle, you would need to prove intent. We can sit here an claim that Obama was stoking religious division through coded language, but it’s far more likely that the intent was to showcase him as too wealthy to understand the plight of the common man. It was upfront about preaching a class divide, but it’s a stretch, in my opinion, to call it a dog-whistle for the anti-Mormon crowd.
The next issue with this is the concept is the intent of the listener as well. If you are listening to a speaker looking for them to be on a specific side then you’re going to find extra meaning in their already emotionally charged words. With Trump today, many are looking for him to slip up and say something outwardly racist to prove their beliefs. While he has said actually racist things in the past, many attack him for just about any statement he makes believing that he is constantly dog-whistling to Nazis and other white nationalists. By extension, the listeners will make these claims (either because they support or oppose) that Trump made a racist statement hidden in his wording. Without a form of proof of intent, there is little to this outside of conjecture at best or a red herring at worst.
Another portion of this is the concept of a dog whistle itself. As it is supposed to be a coded and hidden message meant only for racists or the like, why is it that it’s almost always heard exclusively by the opposition? You rarely hear of the racists jumping up and down because they know Trump is talking to them, but his opponents are all too attuned to this secret, racist language.
In summary, we know that most politicians use rhetoric and fallacious language constantly in order to gain appeal. We know that people tend to hear what they want to hear. We know the two of these concepts together is dangerous. That all said, to call every emotionally charged statement a dog whistle without any proof of intent is a bad argument against them. Using loaded phrases and questions to double speak is an equally terrible tactic to employ. Between the two though the responsibility falls on the listener to ensure that they are doing their best to read between the lines.
You can read more from Killian Hobbs on Think Liberty here.