The Maastricht Diplomat

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  • Ethan Bergman

Blowing the dogwhistle and dividing society

“Globohomo”, “Le Happy Merchant”, "Identitarianism », « Jogger », « Kalergi Plan », « Magapede », « Power level », « Shlomo », « Three Percenters”, “Weimerica”, “Who Nose?”, “Zioworld”…


The political world certainly has not been rigid in 2020, mixing old and new strategies so as to achieve the most influence amongst a variety of actors ranging from everyday citizens to politicians. Moreover, the variety of controversial statements is not lacking, having immense effect in such a world, exemplified by Trump’s recent Proud Boys comment. What certainly has drastically changed over time are styles and strategies of discourse, having polarizing consequences. To elaborate, it has evolved to impact large audiences and became a widespread phenomenon that spread through  social media platforms , pulling in more people to partake in ill-informed political discussions and dividing society.


Whether it is witnessing the clashes from the aftermaths of Macron’s and Erdogan’s comments concerning freedom of religion and speech, or the politicization of coronavirus measures,  world leaders’ position and discourse have a peculiar and varied effect on our populations. However, it should be noted that there are negative strategies which do not widen one’s views in the present, but lead to a more general demographic polarization on political and cultural bases.


No better example of a negative strategy can be found than the one employed during the recent televised presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. When Trump was asked if he would denounce white supremacists, with the example of the infamous ‘Proud Boys’ group being mentioned by Biden, he carefully paused and calculated his message. Trump’s message was to ‘stand back and stand by’. Certainly, this response to an opportunity to denunciate had raised many suspicions as well as viewers’ eyebrows.


As it turns out, the Proud Boys were greatly honoured by and rejoiced the comment. Indeed, the ‘stand back and stand by’ comment was employed for merchandise, social media campaigns and chants. This led to the inevitable enlargement of the Proud Boys movement, with many white supremacists being motivated by the President’s words to join a dividing movement in the United States. This is part of the Trump rhetoric which further tears at the United States’ societal fabric. 

The use of specific wording resulting in various interpretations is a type of coding. This is commonly known as a ‘political dog whistle’. This terminology is metaphorically linked to actual dog whistles; of which dogs can catch specific frequencies from which humans cannot, leading to multiple versions of the same message. Unfortunately, this tradition of multiple interpretations causes ambiguity and disunity, a tool largely employed by today’s politicians and in prior generations. Whilst exceedingly popular in the modern-day United States, it is essential to process how dog whistles emerged, the revival of this strategy and the dangerous implications of dog whistles.


Most modern dog whistles have racist and possible violence-provoking connotations. In fact, most to all dog whistles are used in a discriminatory context towards a minority group and may take the form of scapegoating. Until roughly after the middle of the 20th century, it was standard to openly be able to criticize and blame minority groups. The exposure of political manipulation and populist discourse strategies after World War II brought forward conversations on interpretations and speech coding. Hateful speech became more recognizable and shunned worldwide whilst the consequences of hateful violent discourse were revealed. It can be said that Fascist beliefs, their effects and consequences, created the necessity for individuals with controversial views in society to communicate through speech coding. Subsequently, the modern concept of political dog whistles came into development and was largely studied during the prominence of  civil rights movement in the 1960’s.The varieties of discrimination were prominent alongside ‘politically correct’ addresses given by politicians in the form of dog whistles. In that decade, the former Chair of the Republican National Committee named Lee Atwater, discussed  and justified his political usage of dog whistles in relation to racial issues; 


“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 by-product 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”.


Evidently, the usage of dog whistles is an enormous advantage to the users considering it masks discriminatory language and controversial implications. During the latter half of the 20th century, the dog whistle phenomenon would mainly be restricted to the United States. Relevant American dog whistles include Nixon’s discussions on racial and welfare division in the 1960’s as well as Reagan’s description of low-income black women. Addressing Nixon, his referral to ‘establishing law and order’, a concept still echoed today, was an intentional tactic to appeal to white voters angered about integration. For him, the targeted ‘silent majority’ was supposed to be convinced that this would quell the famous ‘inner cities’ of crimes through tough policing, implying the belief that tolerating minor crimes encourages more serious violent crimes. In reality, these simple trigger words result in the encouragement of unjust policing, targeting and additional violence in low-income communities of people of colour. Addressing Reagan, his famous referrals to Chicago’s ‘welfare queens’ was popularized in his circles as a representation of lazy low-income black women abusing the welfare system and essentially ‘stealing’ money from conservatives. 


From Nixon, to Reagan, to Trump, the US political system is filled with countless examples, some yet to be discovered and analysed. Whilst dog whistles became popularized in the US, the recent revival and expanding of coded vocabulary is concerning due to its international usage. As is often the case, other societies are influenced by the US’s and vice versa. Hence, it is important to analyse the spread of dog whistles, and as well, inspect the European context.


Modern standards have practically discouraged any direct ‘unjust’ targeting due to the ethical standards of politics. This does not mean that direct targeting does not occur in every-day life on city streets. However, to spread messages to a wider audience, the aspects of impactful political words are useful. These types of interactions happen to politicians and individuals discussing controversial topics on digital platforms, without revealing radical views. From YouTube and Instagram to Facebook and 4chan, an immense amount of dog whistles can be identified. Hence, removing the exclusiveness of the coding’s messaging. Members of the alt-right, a political affiliation frequently tied to coding, have countless dog whistles. Yet, the discovered ones are found here


Evidently, dog whistles pose an immense danger for the US social integrity and spawns vile, and largely undetectable, discrimination in the digital age. The dog whistle strategy is slowly cementing itself in the discourse of European public figures, forming an impact in the early 21st century and especially following the migrant crises on the European content. These crises presented an opportunity to employ dog whistles against a larger demographic group. shifting from solely appearing in race-related forms to also appearing in religion-related forms. The goal of this shift was to enable further polarization and demonization of (not mainstream religions and denominations) in hopes of presenting the dangers of religion-related clashes and concepts, such as traditions and culture.


As to not immediately be labelled as bigoted, right-wing politicians would emphasize that the migrants pose threats to the ‘European way of life’, ‘our control’ and ‘Judeo-Christian values’. If these statements sound vague, it is due to the intentional vagueness carefully crafted,  permitting the proper functioning of the dog whistle. These new cases of dog-whistling in Europe often take racist, islamophobic and particularly, anti-Semitic, forms. The purpose being to divide and demonize in plain sight, as learned from the United States’ history. The effect were clearly portrayed when Orban recently accused Jewish investor Soros of causing Hungary’s financial difficulties and slandered Soros’ face and image all over the country. This resulted in an increase of anti-Semitic feelings among the population and caused multiple incidents. Boris Johnson has also been accused of dog-whistling recently on multiple occasions. For instance, describing burqa-wearing women as ‘bank robbers’ and describing Obama as “part-Kenyan'' in explaining why Obama was against more United Kingdom autonomy during the Brexit deal. Examples of dog whistles’ consequences in Europe have also manifested themselves in political decisions. According to the BBC, the manipulative nature of dog whistles was employed during the Brexit referendum. The dog whistles were aimed at demonizing migrants, without proper reasoning, and to avoid discussing UKIP’s future policies.


The coding concept is immensely popular with groups holding racist, anti-governmental and antisemitic views since it permits the transmission of hidden information in messages. Whether online or in political speeches, the effect of dog whistles should not be underestimated in its potential influence on society. Its dividing capabilities have had a long-lasting impact on US society. Therefore, the strategy should not be allowed to spill over further into European society. Due to the EU’s diversity and fragile democratic process, dog whistles are highly dangerous. The cracks which divide us are being formed under our noses and benefit an egocentric minority profiting from the creation of an ignorant fanbase. Hateful and discriminatory narratives are not to be allowed to grow silently whilst its users live in ignorance. 


As a collective, the usefulness of identification of dog whistles is not to be underestimated since the wide scale understanding of its messages ensures it cannot be integrated with in political and civil discourse. By calling out dog whistles online and in politics, at least the spread of radical/racist views is diminished as analysis of the coding reveals the true intents of individuals which can be countered.



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