Dog whistles and more

On ADS-L on the 2nd, Geoff Nunberg started a discussion about political language coded for race. The background is dog whistle politics.

From the Moyers & Company website, a February 28th piece on Ian Haney López on “The Dog Whistle Politics of Race, Part I: Six Case Studies in Dog Whistle Politics”:

In his latest book, Dog Whistle Politics, Ian Haney López writes about the subtle, racially coded messages politicians use — “dog whistles” — to harness below-the-surface racial tensions to get elected and to advance policies that are often contrary to voters’ self-interest.

“Think about a term like ‘welfare queen,’ or ‘food stamp president,’” Haney López told Bill [Moyers]. “On one level, like a dog whistle, it’s silent. Silent about race — it seems race-neutral.” But on another level it has a shrill blast “that can be heard by certain folks … a warning about race and a warning, in particular, about threatening minorities.”

Geoff Nunberg on ADS-L sees an extension of the expression dog whistle:

The standard understanding of the phenomenon is as  language that sends a signal to one part of the electorate which isn’t audible to anyone else — [William] Safire gave the example of George W. Bush’s discreet high-fives to Christian conservatives. But it’s my sense the term is used now for any oblique language (particularly as regards race), whether or not the general audience can pick up the meaning, so long as the speaker can plausibly — or often, not so plausibly) — deny that interpretation (cancel the implicature?)


So [Princeton economist and NYT columnist Paul] Krugman called [Wisconsin Republican representative] Paul Ryan’s reference to “inner city culture” a dog whistle, and [California Democratic representative] Barbara Lee said “when Mr. Ryan says ‘inner city,’ when he says, ‘culture,’ these are simply code words for what he really means: ‘black.’” But that’s sort of like saying that “Park Avenue” is a code word for “rich.” You don’t need a Captain Midnight secret decoder ring to get it.

A lot of people call these items euphemisms… That seems wrong. The point of a euphemism (e.g., “backside,” “facilities”) is not to obscure the reference but to refer to it more decorously, and the reference can’t be disavowed — you can’t say, “I meant your backside, not your ass.” And ‘euphemism’ implies that there’s something impolite or unsavory about the word it replaces, which is not the case here. There’s nothing about “Jew” needs to be euphemized, and when you describe a Jew as “New Yorker” or (historically) as a “city boy,” you’re not doing it in the name of delicacy.

I like the description the philosopher John Holbo at Crooked Timber has used, “impolite fictions,” but that doesn’t get at the semantic process here, which it seems to me to involve referring to X via one of its stereotypical properties (as, e.g, “inner city,” “food stamp users”) with the intention of evoking but not actually denoting it. (Or maybe I should make that, “referring to X by naming something to which X stereotypcially applies — e.g., food stamp users are stereotypically black.) But what should it be called?

Finding the perfect label is a pointless task; a label cannot be a definition. (But making useful conceptual distinctions is not at all pointless.)

Nevertheless, I entered this exchange by suggesting obliquities, or more fully deniable obliquities, for the phenomenon,



3 Responses to “Dog whistles and more”

  1. Richard Bell Says:

    I would call them racist metonyms.

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    A number of commenters have noted that these are metonyms — certainly true, but metonymy is an awfully broad category.

  3. A little more on dog whistles etc. | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] the previous installment (4/4/14, here), Geoff Nunberg was looking for a good term to use for a particular class of racially coded […]

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