Understanding and Misunderstanding 'Dog-Whistling'

Understanding and Misunderstanding 'Dog-Whistling'

Blake Smith
Blake Smith
9 min read

Accusations of ‘dog-whistling‘ are commonplace in contemporary politics. Politicians and pundits regularly accuse each other of using apparently benign words and phrases to conceal dreadful meanings. It is, however, chiefly the Left that accuses that Right of dog-whistling, and mostly to disclose and denounce the supposed racism lurking in conservative language. President Trump is a lightning rod for such accusations, which have, however, also struck politicans in Australia and the United Kingdom.  But in spite of the ubiquity of these accusations, it is not clear what dog-whistling is.

We might understand dog-whistling as a form of coded communication, by which a political leader passes a secret message to a specific audience without the larger public picking up what he means. Or we might see it as a form of strategic ambiguity by which a speaker allows different constituencies to understand him in different ways. Considered yet another way, dog-whistling could appear as a kind of subliminal method of activating listeners’ unconscious prejudices. Philosopher Jennifer Saul is developing a fruitful analysis of dog-whistling, which she breaks down into a number of such sub-categories. But her analysis, like that of most academics who have considered dog-whistling, arises from her concern to identify, expose, and thwart what she sees as right-wing racism concealed in dog-whistling speech.

Since the early 2000s, left-wing scholars throughout the English-speaking world have joined with journalists and activists to condemn the supposed dog-whistles of the Right. The struggle to root out dog-whistling can go to absurd lengths; witness the work of Fiona Probyn-Rapsey, for example, who argues that Australians’ conversations about wild dingoes breeding with domestic dogs are a form of (rather literal) dog-whistling about “race panic.” Few consider that there might be anything amiss in their ways of listening for dog-whistles, or something awry in the very idea that there is such a thing as dog-whistling.

Thinkers on the Right, meanwhile, who have an obvious interest in challenging the concept of dog-whistling, have only glowered and sulked at it. A typical example of this habit can be found in a recent article by Daniel Bonevac, who analyzes left-wing rhetoric about Donald Trump’s allegedly dog-whistling references to Mexican immigrant criminals. Such references appear to Trump’s critics as racist. While Trump (whom Bonevac supports) insists that “some” Mexican immigrants are “good people,” these critics argue that he implicitly targets all Mexican immigrants by associating the categories ‘Mexican’ and ‘immigrant’ with the category of criminality.

Bonevac, logically enough, insists that such a line of argumentation would make it impermissible to issue any negative statement about members of racial groups, for fear that these statements might imply something racist about the group as a whole. Indeed, Bonevac does not go far enough. Any statement about a member of group, whether positive or negative (let alone accurate or inaccurate), made by someone suspected of being racist (i.e., anyone on the Right), may be demonstrated, after sufficiently imaginative interpretation, to have associated categories with each other in an implicitly racist, dog-whistling way. Praising a particular black man as hard-working, for example, could be uncharitably interpreted as a subtle invocation of stereotypes that black people are lazy. With enough bad faith, anything is possible.

Dog-whistling is “lunacy,” Bonevac concludes. He then pleads with the Left not to use this tactic, warning that their enemies will eventually turn the tables on them. There are, indeed, figures on the Right, and the far-Right in particular, who traffic in accusations of dog-whistling. It is common to hear from the alt-right that words like ‘diversity’ are dog-whistles for anti-white racism. But the sort of cringing plea for good sportsmanship on Bonevac’s part seems doomed to failure; if accusations of dog-whistling are effective—so effective in fact that the Right is also using them—why would the Left relinquish them? Moreover, if very notion of dog-whistling is madness, why does it work?

Bonevac’s article ends with a particular combination of affects: on the one hand, a triumphalist smugness that through the force of logic he has exposed the madness of his enemies; on the other, a sodden anxiety that this does not matter, and that he can, in fact, do no more than ask his enemies to treat him less terribly. Bonevac is confident in his own rational prowess, but condemned to futile moralizing—this is a posture typical of his attempts to grapple with trends in contemporary thought and politics, and typical indeed of much right-wing, centrist, and ‘classical liberal’ punditry.

It is the same posture that Bonevac assumes in relation to what he understands as ‘postmodernism,’ a subject upon which he is taken to be an authority (his video on the topic has over 100,000 views on Youtube). In Bonevac’s eyes, postmodernism is at once an intellectually vacuous set of self-contradictory propositions, and a powerful ideology that has seized control of academia. In his book Ideas of the Twentieth Century (on which his Youtube lecture on postmodernism is based), he warns that postmodernism “tends to lead to fascism or totalitarianism.”  Like many of today’s intellectuals who condemn postmodernism, Bonevac has little interest in engaging with the ideas to which he attributes so much power. This is a pity, because some quintessentially postmodern thinkers can help us understand the appeal, power, and dangers of dog-whistling.

*     *     *

The French philosopher Paul Ricoeur was one of the founding figures of what we usually talk about as postmodernism, and a major influence on such bêtes noires of Bonevac as Jacques Derrida. Ricoeur’s work, however, offers the keys to solving the questions that Bonevac leaves unanswered. Understood with the help of the queer theorist and literary scholar Eve Kossofsky Sedgewick, who developed Ricoeur’s ideas in a seminal essay, we may find that a paradigmatic postmodern thinker has much to say to the pro-Trump philosopher.

In his book Freud and Philosophy, Ricoeur asks us to imagine two basic styles of interpretation, or hermeneutics. One focuses on “unmasking” and “demystification,” exposing what a speaker really means, or why they said what they said. This reading is based on an attitude of suspicion, and sees statements as “masks” that conceal the speakers’ agenda. Ricoeur argues that this style of interpretation is that of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, the “masters of suspicion.” The other style of interpretation focuses on the “restoration of meaning.” Instead of asking why a speaker made a statement (in order to do what? in order to conceal what?), the interpreter considers how the statement is addressed to them “in the manner of a message,” and how it encourages them to engage with it to achieve understanding.

In Ricoeur’s analysis, hermeneutics remain confined to the intellectual sphere; but Sedgwick ran with his insights into politics. In her 2002 essay, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading,” Sedgwick accused the Left of being stuck in Ricoeur’s hermeneutics of suspicion. Academics and activists make a virtue of paranoia, she argued, flaunting their interpretive prowess in detecting the subtlest instances of racism, sexism, and homophobia. Sedgwick, herself writing from the Left, came to the same conclusion as Bonevac: that listening with such intensity for the hidden discourse of one’s opponents was a kind of insanity. But rather than let that diagnosis be the end of her analysis, she took it as her point of departure.

Sedgwick did not directly address the notion of dog-whistling (which was a term only just gaining currency at the time of writing), but her analysis of the suspicious hermeneutic style of left-wing “oppositional theorists” illuminates today’s headlines. She explained that this style of interpretation is grounded in, and perpetuates, a psychological condition that tries to avoid negative surprises by anticipating bad news. What the subject fears—“patriarchy, racism, sex difference”—is always on their mind, and constantly being ‘discovered’ in the world. This may may seem like a successful strategy, Sedgwick warned her friends, but it is a self-defeating one.

Paranoid interpreters imagine themselves to be maintaining a “terrible alertness” that wards off danger. In fact they are unobservant and naive. They seem to find the things that they oppose lurking around every corner; but in practice they are continually surprised and defeated when these forces do manifest themselves. Sedgwick points out that her colleagues and comrades were baffled by the victories of Reagan and Bush. Today, they are just as baffled today by Trump. Listening for reaction everywhere, they never hear it coming.

More disturbingly, suspicious interpretation establishes a strange complicity between the interpreter (or accuser) and the meaning pursued. Sedgwick observed that homophobia, for example, imposes on the homophobe a kind of paranoid, prying, insistent need for knowledge about sexual practices and desires. You can’t know what you want to police unless you have in some way made it visible; the injunction to keep oneself pure of sexual perversion fuels an impossible, obsessional effort to think about how one ought not to think about it. Homophobia thus not only represses but also, in some way, incites homoeroticism. Sedgewick warns that, in just the same way, activists working against homophobia may become entangled with what they purportedly seek to eliminate, ‘discovering’ instances of homophobia everywhere. They become unable to claim victory even when their goals have been met or even to appreciate instances of relative freedom.

Observers on the Right—particularly those accused of dog-whistling themselves—may dismiss left-wing discourse about dog-whistling as mere “lunacy.” Or, as Trump himself has done, they may argue that accusations of dog-whistling racism, sexism, etc. are nothing but tactics used to silence right-wing views. “The establishment and their media enablers,” declared Trump on the campaign trail, “wield control over this nation through means that are very well known; anyone who challenges their views is deemed a sexist, a racist, a xenophobe, and morally deformed.” But accusations of dog-whistling are only a recent and particular manifestation of the general logic of the hermeneutics of suspicion, not a new form of madness or a diabolical plot. To be sure, they do function as a kind of censorship. Accusations of dog-whistling make it appear, for example, that even to speak of MS-13 gang members as “animals” is somehow to stigmatize vulnerable minorities, thereby revealing the speaker to be a vile racist. One must indeed hope that such accusations are cynical tactics rather than serious claims.

Sedgwick and Ricoeur’s analyses of suspicious interpretation, however, reveal that claims about dog-whistling offer real attractions to the Left. Those who make such accusations access a momentary feelings of security, power, and superiority. They can imagine that they have unmasked a menacing secret, and protected themselves from dangerous surprises. They can, still more flatteringly, savor the idea that while some poor fools were deluded by the ostensibly neutral character of an opponent’s statements, they—clever and alert—grasped the hidden, horrible truth. But these satisfactions come at a price. Accusations about racist dog-whistling police the boundaries of what counts as acceptable discourse, but their power seems to be waning. They have increasingly little sway over politicians’ speech or voters’ choices. As Sedgwick warns, paranoia does not deliver on its promises.

To plead for an end to accusations of dog-whistling is probably pointless. But Sedgwick and Ricoeur remind us, at least, that there are more alternatives to suspicious thinking than merely pleading for a new naiveté. If we want to understand what our opponents really mean, then we can opt for what Sedgwick calls the “reparative” style of interpretation, in which we consider how to engage with what has been said in such a way that it has truth for us. This sounds mystical—and Ricoeur’s examples of this unsuspicious style of interpretation are drawn chiefly from Catholic rite—but it can also be pragmatic or even playful.

Consider the experimental theater performance “Her Opponent,” in which political scientist Maria Guadalupe and director Joe Salvatore staged re-enactments of the 2016 presidential debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, with a man playing Clinton and a woman playing Trump. Guadalupe and Salvatore wanted to understand how Clinton, who they and many others (myself included) initially believed to have won the debates, actually lost. Watching “Her Opponent” revealed to many (again, myself included) that Clinton’s debate performance had been pathetic. Her responses were often irrelevant, smarmy, or weak, while Trump brutally hammered his points.

Or consider “Sassy Trump,” a series of YouTube clips in which actor Peter Serafinowicz re-dubs segments of Trump’s speeches in the lisping, effeminate voice of a gay stereotype (the heterosexual Serafinowicz only seems to be able to get away with this because he’s mocking Trump; so what would otherwise be criticized as implicit homophobia becomes acceptable). Serafinowicz intends to ridicule Trump, but in fact his performances reveal an overlooked element of Trump’s success. Imagining Trump as a queer caricature allows us to appreciate his humor. When he quips, like a drag queen reading filth, “The wall just got ten feet hiiigher!” it’s hard not to laugh. And, indeed, as Trump’s opponents in the Republican primaries learned, his jibes and nicknames can slay.

These may seem like trivial examples. But they demonstrate that the hermeneutics of suspicion are not the only, or the most effective, way to understand political opponents—which is after all, a condition of defeating them. We sometimes have to ask how we can imagine them as speaking a message that is meant for us. For someone on the Left, that might mean putting Trump’s words in the mouth of a catty gay stereotype or a female candidate, if that’s what it takes to really listen to what he’s saying. For someone on the Right, particularly for right-wing intellectuals given to lamenting the reign of postmodernism in intellectual culture, this could mean considering what paradigmatic postmodern thinkers and texts might say in defense of Trump.

Top Stories

Blake Smith

Blake Smith is a historian of European interactions with South Asia and a postdoctoral fellow at the European University Institute. His essays regularly appear on Aeon.co, Scroll.in and other media.