"Racist dog whistling"

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News brief on the (Australian) ABC website:

David Morris, who sent this in, comments:

I could think of at least four interpretations of 'racist dog whistling' (and there's possibly more). A hyphen might cut down the options, but even the the correct interpretation requires knowing the figurative use of 'dog whistling'.

Ben Zimmer explored the origins of the expression in a 2014 Wall Street Journal column, including its early usage in Australian politics.

Actual dog whistles have been around since the 19th century. The English polymath Francis Galton is credited with inventing a high-pitched whistle for testing the auditory ranges of dogs and other animals back in 1876. Another English inventor, Archibald Low, described in 1933 how to "make a whistle that cannot be heard by human beings, but to which a dog answers readily." And by 1940, Purina was selling ultrasonic dog whistles.

Several decades later, the "dog whistle" turned into a figure of speech for subtle messages that not everyone could discern. Lexicographer Grant Barrett traces the usage back to a 1988 article by Washington Post pollster Richard Morin, in which he described the "dog whistle effect" in opinion polling: "Respondents hear something in the question that researchers do not."

After Newt Gingrich engineered the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in 1994, Rep. Christopher Cox told the New Republic that Mr. Gingrich's plan of action worked "like a dog whistle," and "if you were tuned into that frequency it made a lot of sense." But it was a few years later in Australia that the expression truly got political, with the Labor Party accusing Conservative Prime Minister John Howard of indulging in "dog-whistle politics" in his policies on immigration and other hot-button issues.

In the U.S., critics have painted right-wing rhetoric on immigration as indulging in racial code words intended for the conservative base. In his recent book "Dog Whistle Politics," Ian Haney López, law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, argues that Republicans have engaged in such "racial dog whistling," especially after 9/11.

See also Mark Liberman's 2008 post, "Dog whistle lexicography."

Selected readings


  1. David Morris said,

    April 15, 2020 @ 4:07 pm

    As far as I can figure, the variables are: 1a) real dogs, 1b) figurative dogs, 2a) whistling with pursed lips, 2b) real whistling with an implement, 2c) figurative whistling with an implement, 3a) attaching 'dog' to 'racist' and 3b) attaching 'dog' to 'whistling'. The intended reading is 1b) + 2c) + 3b). Theoretically, there could be up to 12 combinations of those variables, but some combinations seem to be impossible.

  2. Michael Watts said,

    April 15, 2020 @ 4:32 pm

    2a) whistling with pursed lips, 2b) real whistling with an implement, 2c) figurative whistling with an implement

    This dimension could use some work. Where did "figurative whistling with pursed lips" go? Why are "whether the whistling is real" and "the tool you use to produce the sound" combined into one dimension?

  3. mollymooly said,

    April 15, 2020 @ 5:15 pm

    4 The dog may be the a agent, b instrument, or c target of the whistling.

  4. Chester Draws said,

    April 15, 2020 @ 8:33 pm

    A "dog whistle" is only heard by "dogs" or it is just a whistle.

    If a left-wing person works out that it is a right wing "dog whistle", then the whistle is, at best, an ordinary whistle. It has failed in its purpose to be unheard by others.

    This meanwhile isn't even an attempted whistle. Severing a sister-city relationship is pretty damned obvious. It is a very public and intended slight. We might disagree about whether it is racist (would terminating a sister-city relationship with Nazi Germany have been racist?) but it sure as hell is not a "dog whistle".

    The phrase now means "I think what they have said/done is racist. I don't have to explain exactly why though, because it's only explainable if you understand the context of those racists."

  5. Robert Weaver said,

    April 15, 2020 @ 10:08 pm

    The thing about figurative dog whistling is that the overt message is audible but what's hidden is the subtext. How this usually works is that the meaning of the message depends on what ear it hits, and how that allows the dog-whistler to pretend they're not dog-whistling. You can't really say "the message isn't a dog whistle because it's audible" when the dog-whistling part is what the Wagga council pretends isn't there. Also, just because, figuratively and in reality, someone can make a fair guess about what a dog whistle sounds like to a dog, even when they're not a dog, doesn't mean it's just a whistle.

    A mordantly amusing part of observing politics here in Oz for much of the last decade has been watching people who have been blowing dog whistles for thirty years suddenly panicking because a bunch of dogs showed up.

  6. David Morris said,

    April 16, 2020 @ 5:15 am

    Fair go, I was writing over breakfast and before coffee, and prefaced my comment with 'As far as I can figure (over breakfast and before coffee). I wouldn't usually use 'whistling with pursed lips' figuratively, but I can certainly think of 'whistling in the dark' and 'whistling Dixie'.

  7. Rodger C said,

    April 16, 2020 @ 7:16 am

    Go ahead and whistle away, you racist dog!

  8. Philip Taylor said,

    April 16, 2020 @ 8:45 am

    I have always assumed that a metaphorical dog whistle is an less offensive version of the traditional wolf whistle as a show of male appreciation of female beauty. So presumably a "racist dog whistle" can only exist in the non-recipient's mind : someone did not dog whistle at her, and therefore this must be because of her race.

  9. Ian said,

    April 16, 2020 @ 10:26 am

    Two days ago Scott Morrison, the bloke currently pretending to be the prime minster of Australia, provided a perfect example of the racist dog whistle. He appeared on TV and said that the WHO's backing of China re-opening 'wet markets' (which are common in Australia) was "unfathomable" and said "I'm totally puzzled by this decision". To an ordinary person it sounds like he has a problem with markets that sell meat, fish, and veggies. But to a racist who is a voter for his party it is a clear criticism of China, Chinese people, and backs the hinted-at theory that the Chinese Govt started the Coronavirus epidemic deliberately.

  10. V said,

    April 16, 2020 @ 3:29 pm

    A "dog whistle" is basically a term for a improvised shibolleth that is used to mask animosity towards the targeted group when the terms you would rather use are not appropriate in the societal context you are using it in.

  11. Daniel said,

    April 16, 2020 @ 3:42 pm

    Philip Taylor, you dog!

    Ian, this is a good example of the use of the term "racist dog whistle". It's used by the left to insinuate that something a political opponent has said has a secret racist connotation, and many of his supporters are racists, who not only comprehend this secret message but also revel in it.

    There are a lot of uncharitable assumptions being made, and I don't think they are generally true. Besides, the concern about wet markets is that many different kinds of animals are brought *live* in close proximity, and that this provides an opportunity for diverse viruses to recombine their genetic material with one another, speeding up their evolution to potentially dangerous forms. This theory about the danger of wet markets implicitly presupposes that the novel coronavirus had a natural origin.

  12. V said,

    April 16, 2020 @ 3:45 pm

    Maybe shibboleth is not the exact analogy; in the case of "dog whistling" your intended audience will understand it, but not everyone else; members of the targeted group may or may not, but it does not matter. The idea is that enough non-members of the targeted group will ignore it, and enough non-members will understand the implied meaning.

  13. V said,

    April 16, 2020 @ 3:53 pm

    Daniel: I will charitably ignore your comment.

  14. Chester Draws said,

    April 16, 2020 @ 4:35 pm

    To an ordinary person it sounds like he has a problem with markets that sell meat, fish, and veggies. But to a racist who is a voter for his party it is a clear criticism of China, Chinese people, and backs the hinted-at theory that the Chinese Govt started the Coronavirus epidemic deliberately.

    To an ordinary person it sounds like you think Scott Morrison is wrong. But to a person who is overtly proud of their anti-racism who is not a voter for his party, your comment shows how racist all Australians must be for voting in Scott Morrison.

    People say what they say. What they say has context. It also has subtext. Why does the right have "dog-whistles" but the rest of us only have subtext?

  15. Andrew Usher said,

    April 16, 2020 @ 7:21 pm

    Well, the most obvious reason is a bias toward the left, but it need not be conscious or even shared by all the media, as journalists (and not only them) fall back on stock phrases rather than inventing their phrasing anew.

    I think we know what is meant by 'wet markets' in this context; I assume it's a literal translation from the Chinese, as it sounds like a euphemism to me. I don't think it racist to mention the scientifically known danger of them – at a time when it's quite appropriate to do so – and certainly also agree that the use of 'dog whistle' to describe such an obvious, overt act is strange.

    But maybe the term has become more common in Australia (than in America) and just a normal term of political rhetoric there? – which, of course, doesn't have to make a lot of sense.

    To answer the original question, I would hyphenate dog-whistling, though I'm more inclined to use hyphens than seems to be normal today.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo.com

  16. B.Ma said,

    April 17, 2020 @ 4:21 am

    @Andrew Usher

    "Wet market" is not a literal translation. According to Wikipedia, it is a Singaporean English term coined to contrast with supermarkets. The word I would use in Cantonese is 街市, a market on the street. Also according to Wikipedia the Chinese translation is 傳統市場, a traditional / customary market, which is a phrase I have never heard in my life.

  17. KevinM said,

    April 17, 2020 @ 10:50 am

    "Racist dog whistling" is one of those man-bites-dog headlines, so to speak.
    As Dr. Johnson said, it's not that the racist dog whistles well; you're surprised that it can whistle at all.

  18. Anthony said,

    April 17, 2020 @ 1:01 pm

    In traditional terms, the dog-whistled phrase has a bland exoteric meaning and (for the intended audience) an esoteric one.

  19. Rodger C said,

    April 18, 2020 @ 10:47 am

    Furthermore, a racist dog might well be whistling Dixie.

  20. Robert said,

    April 22, 2020 @ 7:52 pm

    For another example of dog whistling I would suggest examining Trump's use of "Invisible Enemy" for coronavirus.
    See https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1252418369170501639?s=09

  21. Philip Taylor said,

    April 23, 2020 @ 4:59 pm

    I tried reading the Glenn Beck piece, but I am afraid I gave up at "A virus is a biological construct. It's a biological disease caused by a virus". A virus is a biological disease caused by a virus ? I don't think that he and I speak the same language, I really don't.

    So could someone please summarise just two facts for me ? (1) Is he pro-Trump or anti-Trump ? And what does he mean by "slavery", since it clearly isn't "slavery" as I know it.

  22. Andrew Usher said,

    April 24, 2020 @ 7:19 am

    On reading that piece carefully, it is clear that he is pro-Trump, and he says exactly what he means by 'slavery'. I wouldn't use the word that way, but he is not in error for doing so. The 'virus' sentence may sound silly when read to oneself, but it is clearly not wrong either.

    Please don't show your ignorance.

  23. Robert said,

    April 24, 2020 @ 7:38 am

    Beck is a former Fox commentator, general right-wing conspiracy loon and currently, although not always, a Trump booster. The slavery is the kind promoted by socialists, Bilderbergers, Illuminati, Elders of Zion, bearded hipsters and deep state alien lizard people and assorted other anti-libertarian elements.

  24. Philip Taylor said,

    April 24, 2020 @ 8:36 am

    Thank you Robert. Andrew, I have never been ashamed to reveal my ignorance — one honest "I don't know" is, in my opinion, worth a million "I pretend to know"s.

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