A lot of todo about Dog Whistles
In an increasingly online (and highly verbal) culture, we often hear discussion about “Dog Whistles” and their use by hate movements, but a lot of the ways people respond to this new knowledge and recognition doesn’t seem to be working to mitigate their impact.
Political dog whistles are a form of indirect communication. They use phrases which are otherwise innocuous and give them a secret unspoken meaning among those “in the know”. They are so named because (like the ultrasonic whistles used to train dogs with) they carry informational content which is inaudible to the average listener, and yet is clear to those prepared to recognise the signal.
Coded slogans, buzzwords and signals have long been in use by groups which try to hide their agendas, but awareness and discussion about these ways of communicating has become particularly prominent in the UK and USA since the rise of the so-called “Alt-Right” and the Trump-era which catapulted large numbers of white nationalists to a level of public significance where discussing the extremes of their political beliefs openly in front of a broader audience and media than before risked potentially breaking the the liberal pact to share political and media space together.
Dog whistling is effective because it can serve a wide range of communication strategies. For those who share a given set of beliefs, it can become a way of identifying and networking with other true believers. It can also form a way of using public communication channels and forums in a deniable way to spread unpopular or controversial — even hateful — ideas. Because dog whistles are deniable (to the mainstream audience), and yet recognisable (to those in the know) they can also serve a third purpose. This is making those organising against hate movements look like they’re panicking over completely innocent expressions of harmless truths.
As examples of this, we frequently see things like the use of “freedom of prayer” used to describe anti-abortion campaigners “praying” loudly and quite intimidatingly at women entering reproductive health clinics while demanding they accept leaflets full of gory foetus pictures. We see religious conservatives and trans-hostile groups talking about “Gender Ideology” (a phrase appropriated from feminist sociology which no trans person or feminist uses to describe their own beliefs about gender, and which when used as a dog whistle indicates the person saying it has a contempt for trans identities, or the principles of sexual equality and liberation). We see neonazis and white supremacists saying “It’s Okay to be White” or “All Lives Matter” which may both be plainly true, but are used to signal racial hatred.
Dog whistles are a deliberately faulty, deniable and faint-signal way of communicating oppressive attitudes. Because of this feature of them, reaction against them is easy to make out to be unreasonable and oppressive against the person broadcasting the dog whistle. Because it is impossible to prove anything about the true intentions of the dog whistler, it is important to actually be a little cautious in how people react to this form of communication. In practice, when people learn about dog whistles, frequently their response is to point them out, and amplify them in the hope of the recognisable contempt for other people’s humanity and civil liberties being taken seriously by others (who may not be familiar or recognise it themselves), but in most cases, in the process of this they amplify the whistler, and give them an opportunity to act wounded, or claim to be censored, while still gaining a wider platform.
A particularly effective trans-antagonistic strategy has been posting dictionary definitions of the word “woman” around and exploiting trans people’s negative reactions to recognising the hostility behind it. Reactions become an opportunity to claim evidence that trans people are foolish or “mad” and a dangerous threat of censoring the dictionary. We need to step back from reaction and letting our actions be driven by transphobes.
I propose an alternative solution:
a) We should discuss common forms of “dog whistle” separately from the dog whistlers — educate people to be able to recognise these for their own awareness.
b) We should emphasise that not everyone who says the phrase is necessarily engaged in hatred. All of these phrases are deliberately deniable, and some of them may even be commonplace.
c) If you are involved in monitoring hate groups or movements, obviously take note of organisations making use of dog whistles, but be very cautious about helping advertise or give free publicity to a group who can then say “we’re being persecuted, and all we said was we want to protect women’s rights”.
Remember, part of the purpose of circulating dog whistles is also to keep people jumping at shadows and paranoid. We need to actively work to preserve our own mental health, to reduce the efforts to keep us reacting on the back foot, and stay focused on the material movements that are happening rather than place undue weight on more immaterial phenomena.