On Dogwhistles

Zuzu at Feministe has a fascinating discussion of Dogwhistles, a very important concept to those interested in the role and effects of biases.  Her focus is on some really troubling remarks by Obama about Clinton. I think the Dogwhistle concept is ripe for some philosophical discussion.

The whole point of dogwhistles in politics is to send a message to a target audience that goes over the heads of most people, because those people might be offended or turned off if you came out and said it. One way the going-over-the-heads-of-most-people bit is accomplished is to speak in code, such as when George Bush suddenly blurted out something about the Dred Scott decision during a debate with John Kerry, in response to a question about abortion. A whole lot of people were scratching their heads about that one, but he had a target audience, and they understood *If elected to another term, I promise that I will nominate Supreme Court Justices who will overturn Roe v. Wade.*Bush couldn’t say that in plain language, because it would freak out every moderate swing voter in the country, but he can say it in code, to make sure that his base will turn out for him. Anti-choice advocates have been comparing Roe v. Wade with Dred Scott v. Sandford for some time now. There is a constant drumbeat on the religious right to compare the contemporary culture war over abortion with the 19th century fight over slavery, with the anti-choicers cast in the role of the abolitionists.Another way to send your message to your target audience while maintaining deniability is to go the wink-wink-nudge-nudge route, where you know that many people not in your target audience will pick up your meaning, but because you’ve crafted your statement to be facially innocuous, anyone who objects will be accused of being hysterical, hypersensitive, or overreacting. The second option is the one that Barack Obama went with when he said while campaigning in Wisconsin: 

This is, I understand Senator Clinton periodically when she is feeling down launches attacks as a way of trying to boost her appeal.  

And that’s exactly what’s happened — all over the place, when anyone has objected to this statement as a sexist dogwhistle, they’ve been accused of overreacting. Of trivializing *real* sexism. Of seeing things that aren’t really there. Of stretching. Of ignoring context… Melissa McEwan has made the point many times that Obama has been praised for his rhetorical skills, for his ability to craft a message using just the right words. On the surface, this statement appears to be saying merely that Clinton goes negative when she’s behind. But then you look at the words he chose to make that statement: Periodically. Feeling down. And you have to ask yourself: Why did he choose those words to make this point? And the answer, unfortunately, is to send the message that Clinton is a big girly girl ruled by her hormones. This isn’t the first time he or one of his surrogates has used this kind of coded language to remind voters that Clinton is a woman. Among other things, he’s dismissed Clinton’s experience in the White House as having tea; he’s said that Clinton’s “claws come out”…

I think this whole Dogwhistle concept is very important, and that there might be several forms of it, which might well lead to different assessments of culpability in different cases. Here are some that occur to me, with respect to sexist Dogwhistles:

  • The Dogwhistle is a deliberately crafted effort to appeal to audience’s sexism.
  • The Dogwhistle is an unconscious product of the the speaker’s sexism.
  • The Dogwhistle is not a product of sexism (perhaps the speaker is from a subculture in which the phrase carries different connotations), but it nonetheless appeals to the audience’s sexism.
  • Not sure about this one: The Dogwhistle is the product of the speaker’s cultural associations, but it is not a product of sexism. (This would depend heavily on formulating a definition of sexism that is restrictive enough to make this possible.)
  • What do you think?

    8 thoughts on “On Dogwhistles

    1. Jender, I really like the distinctions you end with. The last one brings up issues that have appeared at other times in discussions on this blog. It occurs to me that the still prevalent use of “girl” by a lot of pretty tough working women might be a case. E.g., my female doctor’s nurse telling me to sit over there with the other girls. Perhaps this isn’t exactly as much a matter of cultural associations as it is a matter of demeaning or sexist language becoming ossified in one segment of the community and not others.

    2. What if I interpreted “periodically” as when Clinton loses in one of the primaries? That would have nothing to do with her gender. And that’s really what I thought the statement meant before I read the other interpretation. I don’t mean to say that there isn’t sexism everywhere (and I cringe every time someone calls me “girl”!) but, maybe, this remark really is more innocent than we’re making it… Or maybe, we’re being sexist by saying that he must be talking about her hormones… Then again, maybe I am missing something…

    3. Rachel,

      Hmm… One of the things about Dogwhistles is that they might convey an innocent message to one audience and a sexist one to another. So you could be the audience getting the innocent message. (Though there’s so much unconscious stuff going on in language processing that I wouldn’t be shocked to learn e.g. that the word ‘menstruation’ got primed even for you.) The issue of of what was going on in Obama’s head is also tricky– it might have been that he was thinking about nothing but what you were thinking about. It might have been that *consciously* he was thinking about nothing but what you were thinking about, but that something else was also going on unconsciously. Or it might have been a fully conscious expression of his explicit sexist beliefs (I doubt that), or a very cynical manipulation of the sexist beliefs of a part of his audience, beliefs which he himself doesn’t share. Which of these counts as innocent? I’m genuinely not sure– depends on what we mean by ‘non-innocent’. (I do think, though, that it would have been more natural to say something like “she always turns negative when she loses a primary”. That makes me doubt the version that has nothing problematic going on at any level in Obama’s head.)

    4. Your last point – that he could’ve said things much clearer and in plain English – is a good one. That certainly is a valid question: why did he make his point this convoluted.

      I do also remember, though, guys who were almost afraid to breathe because they were afraid of being accused of sexism/harassment/you name it. So, while I think it is important to point out sexism, the dogwhistle concept strikes me more like the subliminal message stuff in advertising that has been discredit. It would take an awful lot of planning ahead for Obama to get a “secret” message into his speech. I can see it with the name dropping Bush did (that’s simple: just say a name). I can also see that there’s something going on unconsciously with Obama. But overall, I would caution to read more into this than there is on the surface. Frankly, I would be surprised if there’s anybody in this culture who is not sexist on some level (there are some interesting psychological studies that have been done that showed that we tend to be more racist/sexist than we would like to believe… I can dig out references if there’s an interest).

    5. Political speeches *do* get an awful lot of planning, and it is (it seems to me) pretty clear that there are carefully crafted references to e.g. appeal to the Christian right while going right past the rest of us. I’ve seen lots of documentation of those. That said, I really doubt that Obama’s doing anything that deliberate. And I also agree that we’re all deeply affected by racism and sexism, and have lots of unconscious biases (e.g. gender schemas) that we would rather not have. But I still think it’s worth pointing out when these things are affecting what we say, or how we react. I do think, though, that we need to be very careful about *blame* for this sort of thing. It strikes me as often very counter-productive to blame people for unconscious biases– leads to defensiveness and denial. It’s also arguably inappropriate to blame people for such unconscious processed. It seems far more important to carefully lay this stuff out for examination and reflection, so that we can try to avoid being unduly influenced by it.

    6. The other thing I realized this morning on my way to work: In addition to not blaming, we need to figure out ways to help people (including ourselves!) to be more conscious about their biases. Things like this discussion can help with this consciousness raising (as long as we stay away from blame, which I think you have). I’ve certainly reflected a lot on this topic since your post! The only way we can ever overcome sexism is by becoming more conscious about the “little” jibes we endure (like the “girl” comments jj pointed out) and start talking about it.

      (On my way to work, strangely enough, I was reading about unconscious racism in the book I am currently reading “Strangers to Ourselves” by Timothy D. Wilson. I can highly recommend that book, btw. It is pretty eye-opening to learn how little we really know about ourselves).

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