An article that crossed my social media feed this morning highlighted (for me) a particularly insidious idiom that’s become popular among some in the culture-politics scrum. The article, a “come to Jesus” exposition of a feminist writer’s realizations regarding free speech and the dangers that her (former) allies and co-thinkers posed to it, opened with:

I also knew that “free speech” is viewed as a dog whistle for libertarians and “the right” these days. And while I’ve come to realize that pretty much anyone who does not adopt all of the “correct” leftist positions, as dictated by the woke masses, is labelled “alt-right” (whatever that means) or “extreme right” (for maximum hyperbole), I, in the past, did not wish to be lumped in with people I had been informed or had determined were enemies.

Her use of scare quotes around “correct” highlights her moment of clarity, and I commend her on the courage and honesty she has exhibited in voicing her heterodox opinions and in recognizing that those not of the Social Justice Left are not her enemies. The article’s a good read. But, it’s the use of “dog whistle” that piqued my interest in the moment.

A dog whistle, in a political context, is essentially a coded message or “secret handshake,” whereby an otherwise-innocuous or positive phrase carries a (usually sinister and contrary) sub-text, meant to inform the like-minded that “I am one of you.” For example, in social justice thinking (and I use the term very generously), “color-blind” would mean “I’m a racist who’s exploiting the concept of equality to make sure those people don’t get too uppity,” and, in the former views of the article’s author, “free speech” would mean “I get to say all the wrong and hateful shit I want to.”

I’m not breaking any new ground when I point out that the Social Justice Left views things as not only stark, Manichean, right vs wrong, but that those who won’t agree with them are not just wrong, but evil.

The concept of the dog-whistle is a perfect fit for that world view. It implies that there are secret cabals and underground movements orchestrating their messages of hate, plotting to keep their power, conspiring to continue their subordination of oppressed groups, and perhaps sacrificing virgins, eating babies and puppies, crocheting swastika quilts, and having Nazi anthem sing-a-longs right under their noses. A dog-whistle is a non-proximate equivalent of a secret handshake or other signal of recognition between two members of a secret society, and presuming that these exist, formally or informally, allows such folks to continue to pretend that they’re righteous fighters against a concerted effort to preserve and propagate evil in the world. It also fits in with the Left’s apparent groupthink and flow-down of new ideas from certain taste-makers and agenda-setters. If you’re used to the idea that the “correct” answers emanate from a single on-high source, you’re likely to think that all the “incorrect” answers are generated the same way.

Yes, that’s a bit of hyperbole. But, the idea that someone who says “free speech” and “colorblind” is an unscrupulous liar hiding his bigotry and oppressive nature behind otherwise-commendable ideas allows them two things: to dismiss any sort of disagreement with their views, and to deride anyone who disagrees with them. By calling a phrase a dog whistle, the debate gets shifted away from the disagreement on viewpoint or policy, and can mask problems, flaws, inconsistencies, and flat-out-wrongness of the accuser’s viewpoints.

That’s not to say that rhetorical gambits aren’t made. When Barack Obama was running for President, some would refer to him as Barack Hussein Obama with the intent of highlighting the “Hussein” part in order to play to those with anti-Muslim leanings, even though he isn’t Muslim. And, yes, some people do bend good principles to their partisan goals (and not just the Alt-Right, by the way). But, honest debate gets pre-empted by a presumption that Phrase X voiced by someone of a different political tribe is a dog whistle, just as debate gets shut down by an accusation of racism.

As the article author suggested, deeming something a dog whistle is a way to ignore contrary ideas and views via the unseemly mechanism of diminishing their espousers. It declares someone disingenuous or dishonest, and therefore unworthy of being heard. I know that if I see the phrase, I’ve learned something about its user and what to expect if I try to engage him or her in debate.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.

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