Progressive Dog Whistling

Edward Gibbon Woodcut

B. Webb Harrington

For those young people who do not remember when the term was popular, dog whistling is the use of a message that may be interpreted one way by the broader population but has a more specific meaning to a targeted political audience. A commonly cited example is when politicians, particularly conservatives, use the term “family values.” This is a dog whistle for Christians who want their values to be upheld and protected while the term does not necessarily offend large atheistic or secular segments of the American population. However, perhaps the most common use of the term in politics is when liberal politicians, academics, or members of the media refer to something that a conservative politician is saying as “dog whistling.” Typically, the members of the left argue that conservative politicians use phrases like “states-rights,” “welfare queens,” or “criminals” to illicit responses from racists in order to gain votes. They would argue that while the phrases seem innocuous enough on their own, they really are coded signals that will be picked up by racists so that they know that the conservative politician is on their side. With the possible exception of examples relating to Donald Trump, such as his use of the word “****hole” countries, my experience of politics has been substantially devoid of the left referring to conservative language as dog whistling. Whether this is because conservatives have stopped dog whistling, liberals have stopped being able to falsely accuse conservatives of dog whistling, or because people have stopped paying attention to dog whistling is up for debate. However, dog whistling has not disappeared as a useful term. Instead a different group of people should start using it.

On leftist college campuses, language has become a thing of fascination. In particular, typically far-left departments like Women and Gender Studies use extremely specific language in all of their writings. Many books that have become the basis for post-modernism and these departments are laser-focused on the language that is used to discuss a certain topic. Many conservatives have derided such linguistic specificity as “virtue-sig- naling” or “nonsense.” This characterization, while comforting, is incorrect and fundamentally misunderstands the purpose behind such language. These leftist departments are not just trying to seem like better people than they are or trying to confuse their audience, they are writing for a different audience than they seem to be. They are dog whistling. They are saying one thing to the general pop- ulation but communicating something else a special group of people. That special group is the people who are “woke.” In other words, they are the group that is extremely interested in social justice. Social Justice Warriors use phrases like “diversity,” “inclusion,” “empowerment,” “representation,” “equity,” or “historically oppressed groups.” These phrases may seem innocuous, confusing, or even positive to those who have been successfully indoctrinated, but really, they represent a new form of dog whistling. When pamphlets advertising a new student club, a new college program, or a job opening use this kind of language they are trying to attract the type of people who understand this language. Liberal politicians like Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders who used this language were desperately trying to dog whistle to young liberals. It is even possible that Bernie Sanders seemed so much more in touch to young leftists because he was better at dog whistling by using this very specific language than Hillary Clinton.

This dog whistling frequently shows up in pop culture as well. Take the Marvel Cinematic Universe as an example. Asgard, the fictional land of the Norse Gods where Thor lives is a wondrous product of CGI and decades of imagi- native comic-books. Wakanda has been a similarly high product, decades in the coming but instead is a fictional country set in Africa that is technologically ad- vanced and was never colonized. Why did Asgard suddenly become racially “diverse” in the recent Thor movies, with a strange ensemble of black, white, and Asian characters with few matching extras, while Wakanda remained an all-black nation? What is even stranger is that many reviews and articles about both movies describe the casts as “diverse.” In fact many used this term specifically to describe what they saw as some of the best things about Black Panther. However, Wakanda is objectively not diverse. It is a monoracial country made up of a few closely related tribes. The reason that many people who are deeply connected with social justice describe both movies as diverse, or even Black Panther as more diverse than Thor, is that “diverse” is a dog whistle that means mixed to the general public, but not white to the specific audience. Black Panther has only a tiny number of white characters and is thus “diverse.”

While “diverse” is only one example of a single term being used in reference to popular culture, such words are extreme- ly common. The language is not virtue signaling and it is not nonsensical. Ordinary people must recognize exactly what this language represents: modern-day dog whistling.