Whistling for Dogs at the Everyman

This week at The Everyman, I discuss the ‘Dog Whistle’ trope:

For instance, if a candidate talks about ‘States’ Rights,’ that is a signal to white supremacists that he’s secretly in favor of bringing back segregation, because back in the day segregation was partially justified on the basis of ‘States’ Rights.’ Therefore, any mention of ‘States’ Rights’ is code for segregation.

Basically, a dog whistle is a coded message embedded in a politician’s public statements.

It is disturbing how often contemporary discourse involves arguments that would be considered signs of mental illness in daily life.

But let’s not be too hasty. Just because there is such a thing as paranoia doesn’t necessarily mean the mailman isn’t trying to kill you. There is no essential reason why a politician could not signal his ideological fellow travelers by means of a coded message. I will even concede that he may have a reason for doing so—to maximize his results by appealing to mutually exclusive groups (though that would require at least one group to be convinced that what he says is a dog whistle while the other isn’t, and that the two groups differ enough that one would not vote for him if he appealed to the other directly, while being near enough that they wouldn’t be averse to voting for him at all, and that the issue being ‘dog whistled’ on is important enough to the one group that they wouldn’t be likely to vote for him if he didn’t signal them on it. And they would also have to believe he would act on a subject he is unwilling even to speak aloud of. As I say, not impossible, though I’m not sure what the real-life examples would be).

Evasion Through a Mirror Argument

There are, however, reasons why the ‘dog whistle’ trope is stupid.

There is an old argument that goes something like this: belief in God is obviously a matter of wishful thinking. Primitive man, faced with a hostile and seemingly meaningless universe, invented a benevolent supreme being in order to make sense of it and maintains the belief because it is comforting.

The problem with this is that you can just as easily turn it around by saying that non-belief in God is obviously a matter of wishful thinking. Men, conscious of their guilt, desirous of forbidden powers and pleasures, and fearful of the judgment of God, tell themselves that He does not exist in order that they may do as they please and maintain this belief because it is comforting.

I call this a mirror argument, and if you look you can find many examples. The issue isn’t that one side is clearly right and the other wrong; it is that from a logical perspective they are equally plausible and so cancel each other out. You can’t get anywhere with either one of them, except to confuse those in doubt or rally those who are already on your side.

Now, the dog whistle is a mirror argument. Say that Senator Smith (R) gives a speech where he promises to be ‘tough on crime.’ Senator Payne (D) then says “Aha! That is a dog whistle! Senator Smith is signaling to the white supremacists in his party, because ‘tough on crime’ really means ‘tough on black people’!” Senator Smith can then answer back, “Senator Payne is evidently trying to change the subject. He knows he doesn’t have a counter to my position, so he is pretending that it’s a racist code phrase so he doesn’t have to actually address it.”

Read the rest here.

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