What Are Political ‘Dog Whistles’?

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Dog whistles, in the traditional sense, are used in the training or conditioning of dogs with a tone humans are normally unable to hear. The same principle applies to political ‘dog whistles’. Often defined as ‘coded language’, or phrases and terms that go unnoticed by the vast majority of people, but are targeted at specific groups who will understand them. So what do physical dog whistles and political dog whistles have in common? Bigotry. Xenophobia. And a whole lot of racism.

Before and during the Civil Rights movement, physical dog whistles were used by police to sic their hounds on protestors without warning. The term has surged in popularity in recent years due to political commentary, often utilised by online critics. Former President Trump was heavily accused of utilising this technique when it came to his own brand of political discourse. However, you could make a solid argument that he did not in fact use ‘dog whistles’, seeing as his language was demonstrably overt in its bigotry. In his bid for the presidency, Trump infamously referred to Mexican immigrants as “rapist” and “drug-dealers”. Hardly subtle.

In fact, there is nary a dog whistle to be heard in modern politics, with parties and people feeling emboldened to openly discriminate against already marginalised groups. One need only look at the growing popularity of right-wing parties, the rise in racist and homophobic attacks, and the ever growing nationalism of the US and UK in particular. So, if we can all hear them, where are the ‘dog whistles’?

If You Know, You Know

Rather than using coded language, today’s dog whistles come in the form of ‘common sense’ arguments, or ‘cancel culture’ accusations. One of the more high-profile examples of this, and one that is part of an ongoing “debate”, is that of J.K. Rowling. The backlash began when J.K. came to the defence of Maya Forstater, whose employer chose not to renew her contract in lieu of her public transphobic opinions. J.K. tweeted: 

“Dress however you please. Call yourself whatever you like. Sleep with any consenting adult who’ll have you. Live your best life in peace and security. But force women out of their jobs for stating that sex is real? #IStandWithMaya #ThisIsNotADrill”

Now, you might be asking yourself, where is the dog whistle? That sounds supportive to me. Listen closer and you’ll hear it. J.K. has aligned herself with trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs for short) who often bandy about the argument that they are simply stating “sex is real”. Nobody could dispute that. Certainly, trans folks are not arguing against that either, they know all too well that sex is indeed real. The issue here is that TERFs, including J.K., are misconstruing the point, making it about sex when it’s really about gender.

And here we see how dog whistling can start to colour someone’s viewpoint without them even realising.

How To ‘Dog Whistle’

What Are Political ‘Dog Whistles’? | Rock & ArtWe’ve learned a little about what dog whistles are, here’s a step by step guide on how best to utilise them in your burgeoning political career.

  • Step 1: Pick a group/ideology to dislike
  • Step 2: Check whether disliking that group will gain votes or cultural capital
  • Step 3: Twist said group’s arguments/points
  • Step 4: Wrap it up in #commonsense
  • Step 5: Make sure it’s obvious enough that your voters (most likely white males) pick up on your extremely subtle messaging
  • Step 6: Profit
  • Step 7: Do it all over again for next election season

And, don’t forget, if you receive significant backlash for your “vile opinions” make sure to blame all of that backlash on politically correct “woke culture” and SJWs. Never admit that you actually just exercised your right to free speech and are reaping the consequences that you yourself sowed.

Further reading: Two Women Were Kicked Out of Wetherspoons for Wearing ‘Inappropriate Clothing’