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?