Dog-Whistles: A Key Part of Your Political Vocabulary

Introducing #PoliticsBuddhi

What do you do? When what you’re looking at looks like fake news, smells like fake news, but actually isn’t fake news?

Or when what you’re looking at seems like hate speech but actually isn’t?

Or it feels like it should be illegal but isn’t?

This is normal, everyday stuff in our information ecosystem. Where some of the most dangerous words are suggestive and coded in what seems like normal speech. Where bad actors are constantly pushing (but not overstepping) the boundaries of illegality and hate speech.

This world is so crazy that we need to learn a new vocabulary just to function as citizens. And not just any vocabulary, but a political vocabulary.

Call this #politicsbuddhi (literally, politics sense).


One of the top entries in this vocabulary would need to be ‘dog-whistle politics’, or simply, dog-whistling.

A dog-whistle is exactly what the word sounds like: a whistle for dogs. It emits sounds that are at such a high frequency that only dogs can hear them. Humans cannot hear these sounds because they’re beyond our upper range of hearing. (Dog whistles are often used to train dogs.)

In politics, dog-whistling refers to words that only make sense to a select group. People outside that group will obviously hear those words but won’t understand their particular significance.

Some examples

1. Race

US President Donald Trump recently used the words, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” in a tweet. This was after the ongoing protests began over the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man by a policeman.

Why is this dog-whistling? To most people, these are angry but innocuous words. However, to those who’re part of a number white nationalist groups, they serve as a dog-whistle. The very same words were famously used by a Miami police chief in the 1960s with a record of hate against the black community.

Imagine being a member of one of these white nationalist groups on a Facebook Group or a WhatsApp group. Once one member links to a tweet like this, dozens others would chime in and before long, you will know its significance (even if you didn’t earlier).

This example actually addresses another related question.

Was Trump’s tweet a clear example of “inciting violence”?

If it was, then it was not dog-whistling, because it was then a clear call for violence against protesters. Twitter thought it was clearly incitement and decided to label his tweet as such. Facebook thought otherwise.

To be a dog-whistle, the message will need to be coded.

2. Religion

In February this year, Kapil Mishra, a BJP politician in New Delhi (who doesn’t hold any official government post) nevertheless gave an ultimatum to the Delhi police:

“A three-day ultimatum to Delhi Police – get the streets of Jaffrabad and Chand Bagh cleared. After this don’t explain anything to us. We will not listen to you. Just three days.”

This call was made by Mishra during the anti-CAA protests when roads were blocked by protesters. Within hours of that remark, rioting began which eventually took at least 25 lives.

This doesn’t seem like dog-whistling but rather an open incitement to violence.

In contrast, Mishra tweeted out the following words just before the elections in New Delhi.

“India vs Pakistan, February 8 in Delhi. India and Pakistan will compete on the streets of Delhi.”

This is closer to a dog-whistle. A lot of people will be put off by such a tweet, but for those whose whole identity revolves around the Hindu-Muslim binary, it can be a clear signal.

Dog-whistle politics everywhere

Politics and religion apart, you will find plenty of dog-whistles in matters of caste, gender, sexuality, class, language and indeed across all other faultlines.

You will also find it on television news. From the way anchors talk, to the framing of questions, to the text that appears on screen, it’s everywhere.

And of course, you’ll find it on social media.

It seems like every time there is a community with a grievance, you will find dog-whistle politics.

How often should you call out dog-whistles?

Let’s say we all start recognizing dog-whistles and start referring to them as such. What happens next? Here are three likely scenarios:

  • First, those who think like you (or share your politics) will support you for identifying dog-whistles.

  • Second, those who don’t think like you will hate you for doing so and likely respond in anger.

  • Third, those who don’t think too much about such issues might conclude you are ‘overthinking the issue’ and will likely be irritated with you.

Now you can’t do much about scenarios one and two because you can’t control them. It is scenario three where you can probably be a little more careful about your tone. In today’s polarized world, it makes sense not to alienate others.

Bottomline: Do not let this stop you from calling out dog-whistles but pay attention to your tone.

Interestingly, it is mostly those on the left or progressive side of the political spectrum who call out dog-whistle politics. It is mostly those on the right who are called out for dog-whistling.

Now I’m not sure why that is so, but one explanation may be that dog-whistles are effective when they are aimed at a large and powerful group with a grievance that can easily be weaponized. This is a hypothesis that requires testing. But if you follow this line of thinking, this means that it is white nationalists in America, angry men everywhere, Hindutva supporters and anti-reservationists in India, etc., who are most susceptible to dog-whistles.

I would love to know if I’m wrong about this and would appreciate your comments or replies.

Leave a comment

Note: Dog-whistles are not the only form of coded language. Sarcasm is another form. Those who can use it all the time (for example, middle schoolers and above in American schools) will unfailingly identify it, but others will take sarcasm literally.


Image credit: H R Venkatesh

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