Non-toxic dog whistles?

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The OED's definition of the political sense of dog whistle is "A statement or expression which in addition to its ostensible meaning has a further interpretation or connotation intended to be understood only by a specific target audience", derived from the literal sense "A high-pitched whistle used in training dogs; (later) esp. one producing sounds at a frequency above the range of human hearing". The definitions at Merriam-Webster and Wiktionary are similar.

There seem to me to be a few things wrong these definitions, at least as the term dog whistle is generally used. One thing missing that the "further interpretation" is (viewed by user of the term dog whistle as) shameful. And one superfluous part of the definitions is the idea that the "further interpretation" is not understood outside the "target audience" — rather, the goal (as attributed to the dog whistler) seems to be more a matter of euphemism or deniability.

Scanning instances of dog whistle on Google News this morning, the first dozen or so of the examples seem to me to confirm my impressions.

This topic came to mind because of a recent virtual colloquium by Robert Henderson, laying out some of his work on the formal semantics and pragmatics of dog whistles, as discussed e.g. in Robert Henderson and Elin McCready, "Dogwhistles, trust and ideology", 2019. And one of Prof. Henderson's examples struck me as atypical, precisely because it aligned with the dictionaries and violated my impressions of how the term dog whistle is usually used.

The example comes from George W. Bush's 2003 State of the Union speech (emphasis added):

Our fourth goal is to apply the compassion of America to the deepest problems of America. For so many in our country, the homeless and the fatherless, the addicted, the need is great. Yet there's power, wonder-working power, in the goodness and idealism and faith of the American people.

Americans are doing the work of compassion every day, visiting prisoners, providing shelter for battered women, bringing companionship to lonely seniors. These good works deserve our praise. They deserve our personal support, and when appropriate, they deserve the assistance of the Federal Government.

People who are familiar with Lewis Jones' 1899 hymn "Would you be free from the burden of sin?" will recognize the refrain:

There is pow'r, pow'r, wonder-working pow'r
In the blood of the Lamb;
There is pow'r, pow'r, wonder-working pow'r
In the precious blood of the Lamb.

Here's one among many versions available on YouTube:

And this 2018 sermon by Cathy Tamsberg, "Wonder–Working Power", further explains the resonance:

Hear these words and provide the tune in your head if you know it:

“There is power, power, wonder-working power in the blood of the Lamb.
There is power, power, wonder-working power in the precious blood of the Lamb.”

Smile if you grew up with that hymn as I did. Its theology may not make you smile but it is a part of the heritage of many Baptists and others who grew up in evangelical churches. The text was written by Lewis E. Jones who also wrote the text to 217 other hymns. He was a classmate of evangelist Billy Sunday and worked for the YMCA for 36 years. He died in 1936.

I didn't know any of this until I followed up on the mention in Henderson's presentation — and I've read and listened to W's SOTU addresses more than once, without ever picking up on the "wonder-working power" reference, or even guessing that such a reference existed.

So this is a case where the "dogs" are those who "grew up with that hymn". They'll hear the whistle, and others won't.

But the reference is not a euphemistic or deniable way of  saying something widely regarded as shameful.

It's common for aspects of speech or writing to evoke associations among some listeners or readers, and not among others. Sometimes this limited-audience evocation is intentional, and sometimes not. But would we call these "dog whistles"?

In this particular case, Robert Henderson did. And that's reasonable, because it falls into the categories of phenomena that he and his co-author are trying to model. But I wouldn't have used the term  dog whistle for W's allusion, because I've internalized various negative connotations that seem to be absent there.



  1. Annie Gottlieb said,

    February 16, 2021 @ 9:19 am

    You could call it a Christian nationalist, theocratic wannabe, non-separation-of-church-and-state dog whistle.

    Or you could call it a metaphor.

    Depends whether you're one of those lib'rul bigots against religious liberty.

  2. Cervantes said,

    February 16, 2021 @ 9:30 am

    Almost always when the term is used with respect to current political rhetoric, it refers to subtle or coded appeals to racism. It goes back to Lee Atwater's famous interview in 1981. I've edited it for propriety.

    "Atwater: Y'all don't quote me on this. You start out in 1954 by saying, "N*, n*, n*." By 1968 you can't say "n*"—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, "We want to cut this," is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than "N*, n*.""

    [(myl) Empirically, this is often but by no means always true.

    Looking again in today's Google News, the second hit is "Harvard Prof Rejects Historical Consensus on ‘Comfort Women’", where the context is "“To say, ‘well, the Koreans were in it for the money’ — which for me would be the tagline for what the Ramseyer article is saying — is just a dog whistle to a political ideology in Japan that is powerful,” Dudden added."

    The third one is a satirical piece "Lonely 'Proud Boy' Seeks New 'Dom' Daddy" where the hit is "I like playing kinky games like “Dog Whistle.”"

    The sixth hit is "I've decided to start selling the ultimate dog whistle for conveying all of one's homophobic, xenophobic, misogynistic, antidemocratic, racist, ageist, climate change denial and United Nations/affirmative action hatred. A person will be able to discriminate in the comfort of his or her own home with the "Universal Dog Whistle" (patent pending)."

  3. Mark P said,

    February 16, 2021 @ 9:32 am

    That is my understanding as well. Would you call a literary reference that probably only English majors would recognize a dog whistle? That would make a lot of Shakespeare references dog whistles. Doesn’t it have to be a reference intended not to be understood by outsiders? I doubt that Bush intended his language to be “missed” by anyone.

  4. Morten Jonsson said,

    February 16, 2021 @ 10:07 am

    From a speaker on the other side of the political spectrum, I would have taken the words as an allusion not to the hymn but to the Wobblies' appropriation of it:

    There is power, there is power in a band of working men
    When they stand hand in hand
    It's a power, it's a power that must rule in every land
    One industrial union grand

    In either case, the allusion would be overt, not coded, drawing on something the speaker felt no need to hide. So, as Professor Liberman says, not a dog whistle.

  5. Cervantes said,

    February 16, 2021 @ 10:22 am

    Well the satirical piece about the Proud Boy does seem to be referencing the usage as referring to coded racism, that's basically the language they speak. And the sixth hit is not an actual usage of the term to label a piece of political rhetoric. The writer claims it applies more broadly but that isn't evidence against my impression that it mostly refers to racism.

  6. Jerry Packard said,

    February 16, 2021 @ 10:28 am

    One of the clearest dog whistles in the current environment is probably the use of the word 'democrat' for 'democratic' when referring to the party.

  7. KeithB said,

    February 16, 2021 @ 10:43 am

    It might be the *opposite* of a dog whistle. I think for most Christians, the reference is a bit offensive. The whole point of the hymn is to say that humans are powerless to be clean before God without the Power of the Blood. To ascribe that power to human beings is a bit sacrilegious.

  8. Gregory Kusnick said,

    February 16, 2021 @ 11:14 am

    The way I read Bush's reference to "wonder-working power" is that he's promising Federal aid to evangelical churches in violation of the First Amendment. Some might consider that shameful, and it would certainly get him into hot water if he said it straight out.

    [(myl) Actually that's not how the constitution is currently interpreted. The "good works" that he cited are eligible for government support even if carried out by religious organizations, as long as they're separated from "religious worship, instruction, or proselytization". There's obviously controversy about where and how the lines are drawn, but I don't think W was hiding his opinions, or that those opinions were widely viewed as shameful.

    This is obviously connected to Bush senior's "thousand points of light" initiative, and there's certainly been controversy about the appropriate balance between government and private-sector activities in the relevant space, whether the private-sector activities have religious connections or not. But again, I think it's pretty clear what W was talking about.]

  9. mollymooly said,

    February 16, 2021 @ 12:26 pm

    I think the quoted OED definition seems close to Fowler's characterisation of irony:

    a form of utterance that postulates a double audience, consisting of one party that hearing shall hear & shall not understand, & another party that, when more is meant than meets the ear, is aware both of that more & of the outsiders' incomprehension

    It might be worth coining distinct names for the several subtypes of double-audience; reserving dog-whistle for one, irony for another, a third name for optional-extra as with GW Bush's hymn. A fourth type is when you expect everybody to get the reference and are dismayed some take you literally, as with Oscar-accepting actors quoting from their performance.

  10. RachelP said,

    February 16, 2021 @ 1:21 pm

    It might be due to the literal meaning of 'dog whistle' but it seems to me that the implication is of an intention to produce a specific reaction, or at least an emotion or attitude, as opposed to mere recognition of what is meant. I would certainly say that a phrase can be a 'dog whistle' when everyone knows the meaning but only a certain group will have a desired reaction.

    We might all know what you mean by ‘young urban males’ but only some will be afraid or angry that there might be a group of them in the street.

  11. GH said,

    February 16, 2021 @ 1:25 pm

    This was widely reported at the time. A 2004 NYT column by David D. Kirkpatrick, "Speaking in the Tongue of Evangelicals," mentions that, "during his State of the Union speech last year, Mr. Bush famously borrowed the words 'wonder-working power' from a familiar evangelical Protestant hymn about the power in the blood of the Lamb. […] 'Mr. Subliminal, Call Your Office,' ran the headline on the front page of The New York Sun during the convention. But one man's code words are another man's vernacular, and whether Mr. Bush is deliberately sending special signals is a matter of debate, to say the least."

    Given that it caused a minor kerfluffle, I think it demonstrates that while this hidden message may not be "shameful," it could be unpopular or controversial. (And the fact that it turned into a story shows that it wasn't completely undetectable to other listeners, either. In fact, I'm inclined to suspect that it was always meant to be remarked on, that the controversy was intentional on Karl Rove's part in order to stoke the culture war.)

    I think Annie Gottlieb is pretty on point: the allegation was that Bush was using "dog whistles" such as this to signal to the evangelicals and the religious right, "I'm your guy," while attempting to avoid alienating more general audiences by overtly sectarian appeals.

  12. Sniffnoy said,

    February 16, 2021 @ 2:19 pm

    My understanding is that the earlier meaning of "dog-whistle" is the dictionary one, and then it drifted to the current one. I think the process behind this is basically that if people hear about the concept of "dog whistles" and try to call them out, well, what "dog whistles" are they going to call out? The ones that they can most easilly detect (and that they don't like). But if they're so easily detectable by these outsiders, then these are going to be the ones that are least like dog whistles in the original sense. This basically causes a drift in the sense of the word to "thing that are like dog whistles, but detectable and contemptible", hence the current meaning.

    I also agree with GH about how this is a dog whistle, and not just an allusion.

  13. Haamu said,

    February 16, 2021 @ 4:20 pm

    I'm not sure that shame is a necessary component. The goal of a dog-whistle is concealment of the piggybacked message so it's only fully apparent to the in-group, and shame is just one motivation for that. Another could be simple signaling that the speaker is in the group.

    One example that comes to mind is from Sarah Palin, the subject of a post here years ago:

    I’m extremely happy! I know that I know that I know this is the right thing for Alaska.

    Based on the revelation by a commenter that "I know that I know that I know" is a stock phrase among evangelical Christians, I concluded (although too late to post a comment to this effect) that Palin was dog-whistling her status as an evangelical and thereby seeking credibility with certain voters. I don't think shame was her motivation. It might have been a desire to communicate her status efficiently without distracting non-evangelicals.

    So do we broaden the proposed definition, or do we say that simple in-group signaling, sans shame, is not a "dog whistle" but some sort of related phenomenon?

  14. Michael Watts said,

    February 16, 2021 @ 4:42 pm

    But one man's code words are another man's vernacular

    I don't think shame was her motivation. It might have been a desire to communicate her status efficiently without distracting non-evangelicals.

    Or, as the first quote mentions, that might just be how she talks. A specific motivation for the phrasing is not necessary. A working signal works because it reveals information, not because it's intended to reveal information. (Indeed, we have a special term for a type of signal that is always sent unintentionally — "red flag".)

    So in my view, labeling something a "dog whistle" requires that (1) the meaning is intended; and (2) the fact that the meaning is imperceptible to some group is intended. If you have (1) but not (2), you're working with "allusion" or "jargon" or some such. (2) without (1) is a logical impossibility.

  15. Michael Watts said,

    February 16, 2021 @ 4:45 pm

    This cartoon is a favorite of mine, and directly addresses the topics here.

    Though the context I know the problem from comes more from a stylized assumption on the part of "normal people" that if you use a word they don't know, your intended meaning is to accuse them of being stupid.

  16. Bloix said,

    February 16, 2021 @ 6:51 pm

    GW Bush was a master at dog whistles to the fundamentalist Christian community, like the one you quoted:

    Speaking in the Tongue of Evangelicals

    By David D. Kirkpatrick
    Oct. 17, 2004
    To liberal lawyers and history buffs, it was a head-scratcher. Did President Bush mean to oppose slavery by pledging in the presidential debates not to appoint the kind of Supreme Court justices who decided the Dred Scott case, the 1857 decision that upheld the fugitive slave law?

    To conservative Christian opponents of abortion, Mr. Bush's reference was clear as a bell: opposing Dred Scott is shorthand for opposing Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that established abortion rights. One day, many social conservatives assert, Roe v. Wade, just like Dred Scott, will be overturned as an erroneous violation of basic human rights.

    "We have used that comparison for years and years and years," said Dr. Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.

    The potential double meaning rekindled speculation among Mr. Bush's critics that he communicates with his conservative Christian base with a dog-whistle of code words and symbols, deliberately incomprehensible to secular liberals…

  17. Rose Eneri said,

    February 17, 2021 @ 9:53 am

    It seems to me that the term dog whistle has been used by opponents to weaponize perfectly good speech. If I say I believe in freedom, my opponents will say that I am signaling something nefarious when really I'm just saying that I believe in freedom.

    From then on nobody can say they believe in freedom because the other side has propagated the idea that this is somehow a dog whistle. So now I have to find another way of expressing the same idea, thus creating a sort of dog whistle treadmill.

    To a non-evangelical such as myself, the religious phrases used by Bush 43 and Ms. Palin, sound very odd. But, why do we not refer to those phrases as shibboleths?

  18. Bloix said,

    February 17, 2021 @ 2:40 pm

    Rose Eneri-
    The point of a dog whistle, unlike a shibboleth, is that outsiders don't hear it. And if it's pointed out to the outsiders, a dog whistle is deniable. So – LBGTQ, pro-life, Latinx, death tax – these are shibboleths. But a mention that an organization has a relationship with George Soros, or a strong condemnation of pedophilia generally, with no connection to any specific set of facts – these are dog whistles.

  19. Hector Mendez said,

    February 17, 2021 @ 10:54 pm

    President Obama to the Congressional Black Caucus, 2011:

    So I don’t know about you, CBC, but the future rewards those who press on. (Applause.) With patient and firm determination, I am going to press on for jobs. (Applause.) I'm going to press on for equality. (Applause.) I'm going to press on for the sake of our children. (Applause.) I'm going to press on for the sake of all those families who are struggling right now. I don’t have time to feel sorry for myself. I don’t have time to complain. I am going to press on. (Applause.)

    I expect all of you to march with me and press on. (Applause.) Take off your bedroom slippers, put on your marching shoes. Shake it off. (Applause.) Stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying. We are going to press on. We’ve got work to do, CBC. (Applause.)

    Compare Philippians 3:14 "I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus."

  20. John Swindle said,

    February 18, 2021 @ 1:23 am

    If I signal with a word or a phrase that I can speak Biblical or hymnal or medical or Star Wars or gamer or botanical, that's a dog whistle? I'm not saying the concept is useless, but it seems kind of poorly bounded. Or does it apply mostly to the signals of Christian nationalism? Or maybe the signals of the proponents and opponents of Christian nationalism?

  21. Lane said,

    February 18, 2021 @ 4:34 am

    My first memory of "dog whistle" was precisely Henderson's – pertaining to religious allusions that GWBush's audience would hear and non-evangelicals would not. But I (like most journalists) am not an evangelical Christian, and perceive hard-core religion's influence on politics to be bad, so the negative connotation pretty directly flowed from that. It was always a pejorative term to me, and that was its main meaning. So its shift, from "outsiders can't hear it" to "the speaker has deniability" happened without my noticing, though now you point it out it's plain as day.

    I wrote this last summer on the subject of implicit dog whistles: not only are they meant to be deniable, but they may be intended to be deniable to the speaker's better angels, too. "I just said 'thug' – you're the one who thought of black people."

  22. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    February 18, 2021 @ 8:36 pm

    I agree with Lane’s point about deniability. There are some dog whistles I pick up on and some I do not, but my impression of the meaning of “dog whistle” here in the U.S. has always been, basically, a coded phrase or phrases signaling support of ideas or policies that some or many segments of society disapprove of, so the utterance or written words are made in a way for the speaker or writer to plausibly deny the underlying, disapproved-of message.

    To me, dog whistles use coding to obscure references to completely or partially taboo attitudes. The opposite of a dog whistle would be political correctness.

    I feel the dictionary definitions cited are a little sanitized and may deserve some usage notes.

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