Who did dog whistling deceive?

I must have been busy late November last year, and missed this Australia Institute paper, Under the Radar: Dog Whistle Politics (pdf), by the appropriately named Josh Fear. It did get a little media coverage, eg here.

It defines dog-whistle politics as

the art of sending coded or implicit messages to a select group of voters while keeping others in the dark.

Fear clearly thinks that dog whistle politics is bad, but the reader is left a little unsure as to exactly why. The conclusion summarises his reasons

* dog whistling undermines democracy by working against clarity and directness
* dog whistlers have sought to ‘create and inflame paranoia about minority groups and outsiders, and to taint the politics of immigration and Aboriginal affairs with parochialism and suspicion’

But these two criticisms seem to at least be in tension, if not contradiction. If messages so subtle they need decoding inflame paranoia (which they certainly have in Fear’s case), how much paranoia would they create if they were stated with clarity and directness?

According to Fear, when Howard talks about national security and Australia’s record in taking migrants from 140 countries but then says ‘but we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come’ he really means ‘people from Muslim background who seek asylum in Australia constitute a terrorist threat’ and therefore we need tough refugee policies.

But surely directly associating would-be Muslim migrants with terrorism would be more likely to ‘inflame paranoia’ against Muslim migrants already in Australia, particularly given the inevitable hysterical reaction would secure saturation coverage, and is completely out of proportion to the point Howard, on the most cynical interpretation, was trying to make: that people who arrive without any checking are more of a risk than those who arrive after being approved for entry, and that people from Muslim backgrounds are more likely to be terrorist sympathisers than Buddhists or Christians?

Euphemism actually serves useful purposes in avoiding ‘inflaming paranoia’ or offending sensitivities, a point Fear misses most clearly when he quotes Republican pollster Frank Luntz recommending the term war on ‘radical political ideologies’ rather than mentioning religion. Because Luntz notes that in using this term you ‘inoculate yourself from criticisms that you are motivated by religious bigotry’, Fear assumes this confirms his thesis. But Luntz’s point is that he doesn’t want to offend Muslims, not that he wants to use code to do so.

Politically obtuse academics have long criticised the term ‘war on terror’, but that term (and the less memorable ‘war on radical political ideologies’ ) are far preferable to the more accurate war on Islamist militants, the difference between ‘Islam’ and ‘Islamist’ being too subtle for mass communication, and liable to offend and endanger the very people the West needs to keep on side. Major military and security operations can hardly occur without discussion in democracies, but the language has to be very careful.

In Howard’s case, if there is a problem with a lack of clarity, who is being deceived? It’s actually not the people who didn’t hear the dog whistle, but those who did. After all, Howard did not decrease migration, he increased it, and he did not decrease the refugee intake, but kept it the same. By not saying what he was actually doing, did he con them all to the point that they actually increased support for the migration program? Or as I pointed out in my quasi-debate with Irfan, maybe they weren’t inflamed by dog whistles or anything else?

Perhaps these days it is only Hanson supporters and the cultural left who get inflamed by race.

10 thoughts on “Who did dog whistling deceive?

  1. “But these two criticisms seem to at least be in tension, if not contradiction. If messages so subtle they need decoding inflame paranoia (which they certainly have in Fear’s case), how much paranoia would they create if they were stated with clarity and directness?”

    Isn’t that the point – that you can’t say those things clearly and directly without exposing yourself as someone holding extreme and unpleasant views, so you use the dog whistle.


  2. George Meg in the OZ yesterday called this “we will decided who will come to this country…” and the fact that Howard actually increased immigration a paradox.

    Personally I have been at a loss as to why this statement should be considered a paradox, or even dog whistle politics. Most Australians were offended at people scamming our immigration and asylum systems, and wanted the scams stopped. On the other hand most Australians were also welcoming of immigrants, particularly in times of prosperity. Where is the paradox in that?
    Me thinks it is only the left that have a problem with the fact that Howard increased immigration, and solved the illegal people smuggling operations on isolated NW Australia at the same time. After all, it doesn’t fit the left’s paradigm of Howard the racist fear monger. Can’t have reality disturbing that.


  3. In other words Russell, if by careful use of words you can’t get verballed by political opponents, you are using a dog whistle? For shame.


  4. Russell – I think people in general can clearly and directly, as I am about to, state that religiously motivated violence is more likely to be committed by Muslims than by people of any other religion. But even if that is what Howard had in his mind when he made the remarks Fear quotes, stating it clearly and directly is not the best approach for a PM to take. It would needlessly risk adding to the insecurity and paranoia among some Muslim Australians. As in the Luntz case, Fear has things the wrong way around, confusing avoiding offending a minority group with sending coded messages to people who don’t like them.


  5. I’m sure you will have noticed the incredible amount of effort the cultural left put into interpreting and parsing Howard’s statements over his long tenure. Sometimes it seemed that everytime I’d open a copy of Overland, or The Age, or logged on to New Matilda, that I’d see someone going over Howard’s media statements like an etymologist hoping to figure out what he (really, truly) meant. Which is to say, they were reinterpreting his words for their own leftist readers in order to make them look nastier than they actually were.


  6. Presumably what people like Fear want is not really the elimination of euphemism, but the elimination of particular political positions altogether. So, for example, Fear might only want more directness in the form of “War on Islamists” instead of “War on Terror” as a means of ending all talk (or action) on war on the basis that direct talk would be politically unpalatable.

    The same would apply to refugees – if you force politicians to say we are more wary of people of Muslim faith than of other religions, it will become impossible to have tough refugee policies. Lo and behold – problem solved!


  7. Rajat – I think that is the underlying logic of Fear’s argument, that on some issues political positions other than his own are simply illegitimate, and should not even be mentioned. It’s consistent with the generally illiberal politics of the Australia Institute.

    Tim – Yes, there was a widespread racist ‘moral panic’ (to use one of their favourite terms) on the left about Howard. Their big problem, which exists in Fear’s paper, is the absence of any empirical evidence that the supposed target audience heard the dog whistle, or changed their views or actions if they did.

    There is an implicit assumption that the masses heed what pollies say; one necessary for the left’s own agenda for reshaping society from the top, but not one that is very plausible.


  8. How appropriate having someone named Fear working for the Australia Institute. I suppose if he got famous enough it could be renamed the Australian Fear Institute.

    the dog whistle caper was just a stooge by denigrating the way conservatives speak to their constituency.

    Does ” we need a fair industrial relations system” constitute fear to Fear.


  9. Russell’s right – the point of dog whistling is that you can pander to groups while not turning off other groups who would be put off by such pandering.

    As a technique there is no reason that its use should be restricted to the right. I think Labor did a lot of dog whistling to the unions in the lead up to the last election, f’rinstance, hinting that they’d deliver much more to them than most of the population would want (or that they actually intend to give).


  10. dd – Though if so, dog whistling doesn’t work in the case of racial issues, because the hyper-sensitivities surrounding this subject mean that the proposition will be instantly re-phrased in the most extreme imaginable way and denounced.


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