You have likely heard the term ‘dog whistle’ in political discourse. The idea behind it is that a certain politician wants to signal support to certain of his constituents who hold ideas that would not play well before general audiences. So, he says something that sounds innocuous, but which this group of constituents will recognize as showing solidarity with their views.
For instance, if a candidate talks about ‘States’ Rights,’ that is a signal to white supremacists that he’s secretly in favor of bringing back segregation, because back in the day segregation was partially justified on the basis of ‘States’ Rights.’ Therefore, any mention of ‘States’ Rights’ is code for segregation.
Basically, a dog whistle is a coded message embedded in a politician’s public statements.
It is disturbing how often contemporary discourse involves arguments that would be considered signs of mental illness in daily life.
But let’s not be too hasty. Just because there is such a thing as paranoia doesn’t necessarily mean the mailman isn’t trying to kill you. There is no essential reason why a politician could not signal his ideological fellow travelers by means of a coded message. I will even concede that he may have a reason for doing so—to maximize his results by appealing to mutually exclusive groups (though that would require at least one group to be convinced that what he says is a dog whistle while the other isn’t, and that the two groups differ enough that one would not vote for him if he appealed to the other directly, while being near enough that they wouldn’t be averse to voting for him at all, and that the issue being ‘dog whistled’ on is important enough to the one group that they wouldn’t be likely to vote for him if he didn’t signal them on it. And they would also have to believe he would act on a subject he is unwilling even to speak aloud of. As I say, not impossible, though I’m not sure what the real-life examples would be).
Evasion Through a Mirror Argument
There are, however, reasons why the ‘dog whistle’ trope is stupid.
There is an old argument that goes something like this: belief in God is obviously a matter of wishful thinking. Primitive man, faced with a hostile and seemingly meaningless universe, invented a benevolent supreme being in order to make sense of it and maintains the belief because it is comforting.
The problem with this is that you can just as easily turn it around by saying that non-belief in God is obviously a matter of wishful thinking. Men, conscious of their guilt, desirous of forbidden powers and pleasures, and fearful of the judgment of God, tell themselves that He does not exist in order that they may do as they please and maintain this belief because it is comforting.
I call this a mirror argument, and if you look you can find many examples. The issue isn’t that one side is clearly right and the other wrong; it is that from a logical perspective they are equally plausible and so cancel each other out. You can’t get anywhere with either one of them, except to confuse those in doubt or rally those who are already on your side.
Now, the dog whistle is a mirror argument. Say that Senator Smith (R) gives a speech where he promises to be ‘tough on crime.’ Senator Payne (D) then says “Aha! That is a dog whistle! Senator Smith is signaling to the white supremacists in his party, because ‘tough on crime’ really means ‘tough on black people’!” Senator Smith can then answer back, “Senator Payne is evidently trying to change the subject. He knows he doesn’t have a counter to my position, so he is pretending that it’s a racist code phrase so he doesn’t have to actually address it.”
You see, at best both sides are equally plausible. Senator Smith might be signaling his unsavory supporters, or Senator Payne might be trying to evade a difficult question and insult or slander his opponent. All that’s been accomplished is wasting everyone’s time.
Only, it is actually worse than that. Because, you see, Senator Smith may have simply been talking about getting tough on crime, or he may have been dog whistling to his racist constituents, or both. But Senator Payne certainly is tying to slander or insult his opponent while avoiding a substantive issue, because that is all he can be doing. Again, it may even be an accurate insult, but that is all it is.
Moreover, Senator Payne’s statement is only relevant to the conversation if it is true (otherwise it is simply slander). But since it is making a claim about the other person’s secret intentions, it is impossible to actually demonstrate that unless the other person openly admits it. On the other hand, crime (or immigration, or States’ Rights) is a legitimate issue that any competent politician would have to address whether or not it is in fact sometimes also used a dog whistle.
The two sides, therefore, are completely unbalanced in terms of relevance. One addresses a substantive issue that forms part of his responsibility as a politician, the other makes a bald-faced, non-provable accusation about his opponent’s motives. So, not only is it a mirror argument where the two sides logically cancel each other out, but one side is inherently more relevant than the other.
(I would also like to note that it is the side accusing the other of entrenched racism that apparently believes that ‘crime’ is synonymous with ‘Black people.’ I really wish I were making these examples up).
Moreover, this is simply not how honest people argue. Honest people, or people who are sure of their ground, allow the maximum benefit of the doubt to their opponents. For instance, Bl. Cardinal Newman, when writing controversial pieces, would not dispute Protestant interpretations of certain historical events even when he himself doubted them because he didn’t intend to rest his arguments on fragile threads of historical speculation, but on matters that both sides could see and agree on. An honest debate means addressing what the other person said; not what he didn’t say but you think he would have wanted to.
Purposely Misinterpreting an Opposing Argument
To argue from your opponent’s supposed motivations is possibly the weakest and most dishonest form of argumentation, not only because, again, it can never go beyond speculation unless the other person tells you that you were correct regarding his motives, but also because it doesn’t even address the topic being discussed in the first place. This goes double when it is something—such as a politician talking about crime reduction—that he would be expected and even required to be doing regardless.
But let’s be honest here: all this logical deconstruction is really beside the point. I mention only, well, to give the maximum benefit of the doubt. The dog whistle trope is not logic or an attempt at sincere argumentation. It involves searching for code in perfectly normal behavior, not substantially different from an executive picking up romantic invitations from the way his secretary types a memo. This is not rational behavior.
The truth is, no one judges anyone to be a racist because he used a ‘dog whistle’; they judge that he used a dog whistle because they have already decided he is a racist. Having determined his guilt ahead of time, they grope for reasons to demonstrate it. He has been marked as a bad type of person, so he must be doing bad things. If I can’t see any immediate evidence of this, that can only mean he is doing it secretly.
There is a word for this: prejudice. Pre-judgment. To claim that someone is using a dog whistle is an almost perfect expression of true prejudice: there is and can be no evidence for it, but we know it must be true because we know what this kind of person is like.
In other words, as so often happens in these cases, those who employ the ‘dog whistle’ trope are doing exactly what they accuse their opponents of doing; attempting to poison debate by signaling that this person, or these people over here are simply Bad People who need to be ignored and defeated at all costs. Only, unlike those they accuse of employing dog whistles, they are doing it openly and objectively: distracting from the issue at hand and painting the other side as evil are literally the only effects that this strategy can have.
It’s demagoguery at its finest.