Author, Ian Olasov, discusses how classifications can be used to help better detect and verify dog whistles.

By Johannah James
02/11/2022 • 07:36 AM EST

Ian Olasov, author and professor of philosophy at Brooklyn University, discusses different classifications of dog whistles, from the more overt and obvious semantic signaling to more subtle forms, which often operate below the level of conscious awareness of the receiving audience.

0:00: Johannah James:

With us today, we have Mr. Ian Olasov, author and professor of philosophy at Brooklyn University, as well as a two-time recipient of the American Philosophical Association's Public Philosophy Op-Ed prize. And he's here today to talk with us about dog whistling. Ian, thank you so much for joining us today.

0:15: Ian Olasov:

Thanks for having me.

0:17: Johannah James:

Could we start by going over the basis of your definition of, and perspective on dog whistles?

0:22: Ian Olasov:

Sure. So, I think of dog whistles as falling under two basic types. So, dog whistles are tools for covertly or sneakily communicating sort of morally suspect messages to a subset of the audience, of the people that you're speaking to. Or communicating something in a sort of sneaky or covert way below the level of the conscious awareness of your audience. So, you're somehow getting something across to them, but not in a way that they recognize or are aware of.

1:05: Johannah James:

That's a very insightful perspective. To kind of expand on that definition, you've mentioned that dog whistles fall into at least three families. Could you expand on each of those?

1:15: Ian Olasov:

Sure, sure. So, I'm gonna have to beg the forgiveness of the audience for getting a little jargony here, but here we go. So very briefly, just to throw some labels out there, we can distinguish semantic dog whistles, what I call contextual dog whistles and what I call stereotype-dependent dog whistles. Okay. So, we've got some labels. What do those labels actually mean? So, I think often when people think about dog whistles, they're thinking of them in semantic terms, that is in terms of the linguistic meanings of the expression. So, this is the sort of thing that you see in spy movies. The spies make an agreement in advance that some word is going to have a secret meaning between the spies. So, when I say salt, that means, you know, hold a trigger or whatever. So, salt literally means, well, salt to everybody that can hear the word, right? But then among this little linguistic community among this group of people, it has this special meaning, we've just established this special secret code. And I think often when people think of dog whistles, they think of these sorts of secret codes between secretive groups of people. And indeed, I think some dog whistles actually work like that.

The second category is what I call contextual dog whistles. So sometimes words get sort of special communicative powers from the contexts in which they're likely to occur. They can be used to signal certain things, either about the subject matter at hand or about the speaker themselves, from the context in which they're typically used. So, it's hard to find crystal clear examples of any of these things, because dog whistles are sneaky things, but maybe the way that people on the right sometimes referred to Barack Obama, as Barack Hussain Obama, which is his full name, right. Maybe this involved a contextual dog whistle that is sort of driven by, or depends on the semantic prosody of some of the words, namely the semantic prosody of Hussain, right How do most people in the United States know the name Hussain... as the last name of Saddam Hussain and you know the context in which people usually mention Saddam Hussain, at least when he was alive, were like not very rosy, you know, it's usually pretty critical. And so, you get these bad vibes associated with the word and you want to sort of pass those bad vibes off onto Barack Obama.

This isn't a matter of like a secret code. It's the matter of you know, some people being differential exposed to the word Hussain in really negative context and other people being exposed to. So, for example, if you know, you're an Arabic speaker who knows lots of people with the last name Hussain, you don't necessarily think of as a slur or a bad name or something like that. So, oh, you know, I've got a bunch of friends named Hussain, it's no big deal.

So that's one type of contextual dog whistle. You can get other types of contextual dog whistles depending on the types of speakers that an expression is typically associated with. So, you know I think Hillary Clinton did this in the last presidential election, when at a certain point, she started sort of sounding liberal college-professory, talking about "systemic racism" and "implicit bias." Now for, I think maybe these expressions are better known now than they were at some time in the recent past, but at a certain point, these were sort of lingo that was known to liberal, highly educated people or perhaps anti-racist activist types as like, well, if you're using these expressions, then you're really a member of the community. George Bush also did this with some sort of little evangelical keywords. So, expressions like drawn from evangelical hymns that are popular among evangelicals and sort of sprinkle them through some of his speeches. And of course, if you're not an evangelical and you don't spend a lot of time listening to their hymns, you don't recognize these phrases.

Yeah. Good. And lastly, you can get sort of expressions, which are associated not so much with types of speakers or with linguistic context, but with types of sort of speech situation. So this isn't a dog whistle, but it's that sort of communicative device. You know, when FDR described his public communication as fireside chats rather than as presidential addresses okay. Well, if it's a presidential address, you know, that's one sort of interaction that you can have with a person. Well, they're gonna be the only person speaking, and it's gonna be somewhat stiff and formal, and they're gonna be speaking from a place of authority and sort of starchiness, but if it's a fireside chat, well, then, you know, oh, that's like, that's how I talk to my grandmother or something, you know. So it's a much more chatty and conversational and informal and sincere, and so on type of communication. So if you knew that some expression was associated with a particular type of interaction, maybe for example, with, you know a church meeting or something like that. Well, you know you could signal to people who are familiar with that type of interaction that that's what you think is going on here, where other people sort of don't realize that.

Okay. And lastly, you have a stereotype-dependent dog whistles. Sorry, for a long answer to a short question, but here you go. Where what's going on is that you have, the dog whistle doesn't depend so much on communicating to a subset of your audience as again, communicating something below the level of conscious awareness. So I suspect that the use of "thug" works like this. So the stereotypical thug for a lot of people is going to be a black guy, right. And so you can communicate, so when you're talking about thugs, you can communicate about black people. People accused the Reagan administration of doing this when they talk about welfare queens, the stereotypical welfare queen is going to be a black woman. So you can talk about, you know, the depravity of black women without making it explicit by talking about the depravity of welfare queens.

Similarly, you can sort of systematically replace, reference to a category with reference to something else that has a different sort of stereotype associated with it. So I think politicians in both political parties do this with "small business," right? So you find people, politicians going on and on about small businesses when they're talking about, for example, tax policy that affects large corporations in the United States. Well, nobody likes large corporations. The stereotype of a large corporation is some faceless entity that has some impenetrable bureaucracy and it's really difficult to deal with and so on and so forth. I mean, you know, steals from their workers, exploits people in the third world, whatever. Well, okay. You don't want to talk about policies that support them. But talking about policies that support small businesses, all of a sudden that sounds like something that's worth doing. Oh, we're talking about the, you know, the bodega down the block, I like that bodega. That's a small business. Cool. Okay.

I will say that so, you know, this might just seem like a sort of, you know, idle, egghead exercise and sure, fine. I'm a bit of an idle egghead, so a fair point, but I think this sort of taxonomy, this classification of dog whistles into these different categories is, is actually useful. And I think it's useful because it helps us respond to this concern that well, anybody can accuse anyone else of dog whistling and you never have to provide any sort of evidence. Right? Sort of once you clarify what these categories of dog whistle are, the evidence that you need to back up accusations of dog whistling becomes much clearer.

So what's the sort of evidence you need when you're talking about semantic dog whistling? Well, you have to find the community in which the expression has this specific linguistic meaning and look at how they use it when they talk to each other. Not that hard. What about contextual dog whistles? Well, you can look at, for example, if you want to investigate the semantic prosody of an expression, that's not that hard. You just like take a bunch of instances of the expression and like, see, Hmm. Oh, it like 90% of these are negative context. So, and I guess there's probably gonna be some negative semantic prosody going on here. Or most of us don't have the sort of tools at our disposal here. You need a psychology lab, but how do you investigate the stereotypes people associate with different things? Well, psychologists have tools for doing this things like semantic priming experiments, or sentence completion experiments. So you find out that the stereotype of a tomato is red by asking people to fill in the sentence, tomatoes are blank. And then people will say things like red or juicy or tasty or whatever. And that's how you find out their stereotypes about tomatoes. Okay. So once you clarify these different types of dog whistles, you also clarify what it takes to show that somebody has used one. And I think that that helps make the concept more practically useful.

12:24: Johannah James:

How would you suggest an individual educates themselves on identifying these dog whistles, going from this point of knowing about them?

12:35: Ian Olasov:

Yeah. Yeah. It's really hard, right? Because it's part of the definition of dog whistles that they're sneaky or covert, right. That they're being used in a way that only targets a particular audience or that they're supposed to operate below the level of conscious awareness. So it's not gonna be easy, but I think there's, to some extent the answer, I think one way of answering this sort of comes in two parts. So first thing you can say is, well, we're not all together unfamiliar with people communicating in secret ways with each other in everyday life. Every one of us has been around people telling inside jokes to one another. Right. So it's not in general, impossible to tell when somebody is telling an inside joke to somebody else. So maybe you don't know what the inside joke means, but you can tell that somebody is telling an inside joke. How? Well they might say something that on the face of it doesn't make any sense. It's just like irrelevant or inappropriate in the context. Or they say something that doesn't seem to elicit any particular response or sort of like be somehow sort of innocuous or not a remarkable thing to say. And the other person responds in an uncharacteristic way, someone who laughs hysterically, for example. Okay.

So you can tell when people are using inside jokes with one another, you know, not a hundred percent accurately, but you can tell. And at least often, at least when we're talking about semantic and contextual dog whistles, I'd say, they work a lot like inside jokes, you know, that there's some pattern of the usage of these expressions, or there's some meaning to these expressions, which you're not aware of, but you know, that pattern will somehow sort of reveal itself in conversation or will it'll make the expression sort of stick out when it's being used as a dog whistle. So I think just sort of being attuned to those sorts of things, trying to notice, when does some expression just sound weird? When does it sound off or when does it elicit a response from people that is sort of weird or extraordinary?

So, you know, like "Let's go Brandon" is kind of like one of these things. So, you know, I don't, at this point, lots of people know about it, so it's not a dog whistle, but it might have initially in the early days, whatever, like three weeks ago, the early days of the usage of Let's go, Brandon sort of worked like this. People would say it in context in which it was just a really weird thing to say. And then other people would say, ha ha, oh yeah, Let's go Brandon. You know, it's like, oh. Even if you have no idea what somebody's talking about, you can tell that they're using some expression in a weird way, and they're responding to it in a weird way. And then you go Google it and you figure out what it's about. Right.

That is all just to say that, well, you can sort of, you know, hone your sort of intuitive feel for when somebody might be using a dog whistle, but then that's not the end of the story. Right. Because then you've got to, like, if you really want to show, and not just like, sometimes it's okay to just have your suspicions and keep an eye on something. But if you really want to show that somebody's using a dog whistle, well, then you've got to go do your homework. Right. And what is doing your homework look like? Well, that was what I talked about a minute ago. If it's a semantic dog whistle, it's about going and trying to look at usage within the community, contextual dog whistles, you know, doing, you know, looking at patterns in usage by Googling or using collections of text, a stereotype dog whistling, etcetera. So first hone your intuitive sense of when somebody might be using a dog whistle by comparing it to things like inside jokes. And then if it's really important to really establish whether somebody's using it, go do your homework. Yeah.

16:48: Johannah James:

Okay. It looks like we are out of time for today. We've been talking with professor Ian Olasov, author and professor of Philosophy at Brooklyn University. Thank you so much for joining us today, Mr. Olasov.

16:58: Ian Olasov:

Thank you. Thank you. This was an absolute pleasure.