Dog Whistles are stupid

Taken from a thread in the pit, talking about Steven Miller’s statement on “Cosmopolitan Bias”.

So, just to be clear, this guy (who is supposedly politically savvy) decided that it would be a good idea to use a coded word that would appear as one thing to most people, but would appeal to a tiny minority of modern neo-nazis? That might make sense… if you, me, and half the news media didn’t immediately notice and jump on it.

That’s the problem with dog whistles. By the time the people who would call you out on dog whistling notice it, it’s a failed strategy. And given how savvy the media is to dog whistles, real or not (seriously when Ted Cruz slams New York values he’s probably not talking about Jews), the entire concept of dog whistling makes very little sense.

Oh, sure, there are cases where it works. If the dog whistle is innocuous - say, mixing in verses from the Bible in your speeches to court Christians - it makes perfect sense. But the moment the message you’re coding for is something you’d want to hide, the whole strategy falls apart. It would take all of five seconds for people to realize that your speech was quoting the bible, and for it to be all over the news, but that doesn’t matter, because nobody cares. It’s simple, straightforward, and utterly uncontroversial.

But if you code your speech full of neo-nazi symbology in the hopes that nobody will notice except the neo-nazis… Well, then you’re, politically, a fucking moron. Neo-nazis are not some huge constituency you can win elections on the back of, and the headlines in the papers on the next day will be all about how you were “dog whistling” for neo-nazis. FFS, they caught that Herman Cain plaigiarised the Pokemon movie, they’re going to figure out if you’re coding messages for neo-nazis.

This is why I think that most talk of “dog whistles” is nonsense. Most politicians are at least somewhat politically savvy. Even a moron like Trump generally can figure out that explicitly appealing to the neo-nazis is a poor political move. And explicitly appealing to them through a dog-whistle is just not enough cover. You’d have to be really stupid to intentionally throw out a dog-whistle that appealed to neo-nazis or pointed to anti-semitism. Which is why I think it’s a lot more likely that they are considerably less stupid, and just didn’t know that the phrase they were using had some history somewhere somehow of anti-semitism.

Or, as Scott Alexander put it in the piece that inspired me to write this thread:

In the same way, although dog whistles do exist, the dog whistle narrative has gone so far that it’s become detached from any meaningful referent. It went from people saying racist things, to people saying things that implied they were racist, to people saying the kind of things that sound like things that could imply they are racist even though nobody believes that they are actually implying that. Saying things that sound like dog whistles has itself become the crime worthy of condemnation, with little interest in whether they imply anything about the speaker or not.

Against this narrative, I propose a different one – politicians’ beliefs and plans are best predicted by what they say their beliefs and plans are, or possibly what beliefs and plans they’ve supported in the past, or by anything other than treating their words as a secret code and trying to use them to infer that their real beliefs and plans are diametrically opposite the beliefs and plans they keep insisting that they hold and have practiced for their entire lives.

Emphasis mine.

It’s not about deceiving people. It’s about deniability.

Sure, people are going to know what the code words are and will call the dog whistlers on it. But because the dog whistlers used code words, they can feign innocence. And their supporters will pretend to believe they’re innocent.

As for this argument:

I can’t see how anyone can argue that racism and bigotry are “diametrically opposite” to the things the Trump administration is openly saying and doing.

We still run into the problem that they’re using “code words” which only the following people will get:

  • A tiny, extremely unpopular political minority whose support is in and of itself a political negative
  • The entire news media and every member of the opposition
  • People on the fence about the candidate

That seems like a phenomenally stupid move. Even if all you’re doing is alienating people on the fence and firing up your opposition, is that worth it to court a handful of antisemitic, racist bigots that nobody wants to be associated with? Even if you can assume that the base will always take that plausible deniability and run with it (which is not a given), in what universe is this politically savvy? It doesn’t actually make sense.

Okay. But antisemitism? Really? What has Trump really done to show his antisemitism? Posted a meme he later corrected to remove the star of David? Better question - would an antisemite use a jew as his right-hand man in government? Why did he do so well in orthodox Brooklyn? Why was his portion of the jewish vote pretty much in line with what Republicans tend to get lately? There are some aspects of the Trump presidency where all you have to go on is dog whistles. I’d say those aspects are largely bogus.

It’s like I said. It’s about deniability. It doesn’t matter whether or not you actually do it. It only matters if your enemies can prove you did it. And code words and dog whistles make proof impossible.

As for whether it’s worth it, Trump won the election. And he’s presumably going to run again in 2020. He’s got to keep feeding his base.

That said, I don’t feel he’s feeding this particular chunk of meat to the antisemites. As I said in the other post, I think this was a case of the Trump administration feeding the rural anti-intellectuals in their base.

Personally, I don’t think Donald Trump is an antisemite. I don’t think he cares enough about other people to have prejudices like that. I think in Donald Trump’s mind, there are only three levels of existence:

  1. Donald Trump
  2. Things which are useful to Donald Trump (and in his mind, people other than himself are just things)
  3. Things which are not useful to Donald Trump

At the moment, the white nationalists are useful to Donald Trump. But if they stop being useful to him, his interest in them would disappear that second. And he feels the same way about Jews. He sees no contradiction in having both Nazis and Jews in his base because he defines everything by only one characteristic; how they serve him.

OP, you have totally lost me at your assumption that Trump wants to expand his base and therefore should be expected to take rational measures to do so; and the implication through most of your post that Trump and his team will take common-sense steps so that they will not be embarrassed by their communications with the public.

We are talking about a President who, a few days ago, tweeted thanks to one of Putin’s twitter bots.

I agree with Little Nemo.

Dog whistles accomplish two things. One, they are wink wink, nod nod to whomever is primed to agree with their implicit message. Two, they make those who are primed to take offense at them look like the bad guy–the whole “Only a racist would think that’s racist” thing. So the offended keep their mouth shut. Meanwhile, the dog whistling gets louder and louder. And then we get a buffoon for a president.

If dog whistles were stupid, politicians wouldn’t use them so much.

Or they could be like patterns in clouds. You can convince yourself you can see them if you try hard enough but there is nothing there but amorphous blobs in reality. I tend to agree with the OP. If anyone is trying to “dog whistle” at people like me, I sure as hell don’t hear it and I am a lot smarter than the groups that are supposedly being targeted. The whole concept is a little ridiculous like the subliminal messages in movies myth. The people that are supposedly being whistled to have members that could barely pass high school English. Do you really expect them to closely listen to political speeches and carefully dissect their true meaning?

If “dog whistles” are so effective, why do people assume they mainly come from the Right? If they are real, there must be equivalent ones being used in the Radical Feminist, environmental and Black Power movements as well but I have never picked up on one. Maybe I am not just deep enough in the club so to speak but I don’t think most other people are either to make a difference. If you want to send a message to a select group of activists, it is easier just to pull them together and tell them directly.

Little Nemo nails it in one. This is what I was going to say.

:confused: What country are you talking about? I assumed we were discussing U.S.A. where antisemitic, racist bigots are far more than a “handful”, probably a majority of voters in some states, especially states which impose excessive hurdles on minority voters.

I have little doubt that this can sometimes be true. However, when political consultants come right out and say that they use dog whistles in their campaigns, such as the famous quote from Lee Atwater quote about “state’s rights” and “forced busing” having a subconscious appeal, then how is it that you know better than those people about the language they choose to use?

I am wondering if you really understand what a dog whistle is. It isn’t an encoded message in the traditional meaning of those words. It isn’t a hypnotic trick, like showing the queen of diamonds to the Manchurian Candidate. It’s just a way of tempering controversial political positions with innocuous words, that also have a resonance among supporters that goes far beyond the plain meaning of the words. Also, at another level, the use of dog whistles is a reassurance that the speaker identifies with the same worldview as the listener who is receiving the message.

I don’t recall your politics specifically, but I think you lean a little more to the right than to the left, right? (Apologies if I’m confusing you with someone else.) If that’s so, think about terms like “family values” and how often it has been used in conservative campaigns. There’s zero question that it is a dog whistle phrase, though some may debate how precise the term is.

As I’ve said many times on this board, I’ve been the target of dog whistles for the left and I pick them up. The best, most recent example is “love trumps hate.” It wasn’t just a shot at Trump on how intolerant he is, but it is also a statement of reassurance that Clinton favored protecting and expanding the rights of minorities, LGBT, women, immigrants, and others who don’t get a fair shake in this society. Honestly, I don’t pay much attention to the rhetoric from the further left groups that you mention, but I would bet you anything that they use language the same way.

All of this notwithstanding, it is a fair criticism of the term “dog whistle” that it is generally applied to right-wing politics, and very often associated with various forms of racism. But just because that is how the term is often used, does not mean that others don’t use the same communication techniques. All sides do, without question. And if you’re not aware of it, remember what they say about what happens if you’re sitting around the poker table and you can’t find the guy who is being taken advantage of.

The other thing with this specific instance is that taken literally, it makes no sense whatsoever. If it didn’t mean what it purported to mean, then what did it mean? A coded message is the only possibility that makes sense.

Miller is a brown-shirted Bannon acolyte. He knew exactly what he was doing when he chose “cosmopolitan” over more commonly used words, like “liberal” or “progressive” - terms that are much more in the current political lexicon. This administration is filled to the rafters with deplorable cockroaches like Miller.

I think a lot of “dog whistles” are unintentional.

For instance, I have been a huge fan of The Simpsons for most of my life, and like most irritating Simpsons fans, I’ve always had a tendency to drop words or lines from the show into otherwise unrelated conversation. At this point, words like “embiggen” or “cromulent” are parts of my vocabulary that I use without even thinking of the show. So when I use them, I’m not trying to send a secret message to other Simpsons fans; it’s just how I talk because I’ve been steeped in the show for so long.

I don’t think Miller was intentionally sending a message to white nationalists by calling out “cosmopolitan bias”. I think it’s far more likely that the word came to him because he spends a lot of time communicating with and reading the words of such people and it’s just a part of his vocabulary.

Note that this isn’t better.

False dichotomy. That would only be true if every illogical thing every person ever says is a dogwhistle. Sometimes a typo is just a typo. This is especially the case when speaking extemporaneously.

Now, it might very well be true that Miller was using a dog whistle. But your proof of such is faulty.

Is “Cosmopolitan” a term commonly used to describe urbanites in less then complimentary terms? If so, in what circles of society?

I’m asking because I’m not familiar with its use as a negative attribute except among those opposed to socially multicultural views.

It’s commonly used to deride people who like or are comfortable with ethnic and cultural difference.

I have no doubt “some” are unintentional, but I don’t think the Miller example being discussed here is one of those.

Dropping a Simpsons reference in your conversation is a different kind of dog-whistle than an anti-semitic or racist reference. I do the same with quotes or memes from Archer. While I am not sending a subliminal message to anyone by doing so, nonetheless I do get a kick out of someone recognizing it.

But there is nothing inherently evil about being a Simpsons (or Archer) fan, so the need to have deniability isn’t there. But for racists like Miller, you have to mask things with a dog-whistle so you can say “What? That’s not what I meant!”, knowing all the time it is exactly what you meant.

Maybe you could argue that this was just awkward phrasing and not a dog whistle, but I think that point is undercut mightily by the fact that he used the phrase, “Cosmopolitan bias,” twice and used another dog whistle in the same exchange with Acosta.

I don’t find the accusation of “dog whistling” to be useful in debates like we have here. They are almost impossible to prove, and except in rare instances don’t convince anyone who doesn’t already agree with you. Further, they foster a “burn the witch” attitude, such as:

Better to focus on the strength or weakness of the actual argument the person is making, rather than focusing on which words they choose to make the argument with.

That’s my understanding as well.

I’m asking if there are other exceptions or other interpretations that would explain Miller’s use of the word in the context of the conversation he was having with Acosta.

Show. Don’t tell.

Used by whom? Prove it.