In this article:
- Borrowing their name from dog whistles — which can be heard by dogs, but not humans — political dog whistles are words or phrases that sound harmless on the surface but are used by members of radical groups to identify their fellow members.
- Beyond phrases, dog whistles can be memes or symbols that don’t even seem to have any political or ideological connection. But it’s precisely this surface-level neutrality that makes them useful as a “secret code” for talking to other members of a radical group.
- More troubling, though, is the power of political dog whistles to draw new members into the fold by baiting unsuspecting people into agreeing with the milder, seemingly innocuous dog whistle statements.
- While it’s tempting to believe you would never be fooled by a political dog whistle, the underlying psychological tactics at work make them more powerful than you think.
Political dog whistles are notorious for being difficult to spot which makes them even scarier because their intended effect is to slowly radicalize the listener into a bigoted mode of thought without them realizing that they’ve begun to agree to radical talking points.
In an increasingly polarized political landscape, dog whistles serve as a way to divide people further while also making it harder to call them out as harmful.
What Is a Dog Whistle?
A political dog whistle is a word or phrase used by members of radical groups to identify their fellow members and bring new adherents into the fold of the radical group. They get their name from regular dog whistles which are whistling tools used by dog trainers to call the attention of their dogs or train them to perform tricks.
While you can take that as a nod to political dog whistles’ manipulative power, it’s more of a reference to a political dog whistle’s ability to hide its true meaning from people who would call out its message as harmful.
Political dog whistles are able to do this because the words themselves — that is, the ones used in the dog whistle — are harmless in and of themselves meaning that without their subversive meanings, they could be taken at face value. A dog whistle uses this face-value harmlessness to draw more people to it.
Imagine it this way. You live in a reality where apples are either yellow or green. No more, no less. You know that red apples don’t exist, but that a group of conspiracy theorists who want to burn down all the yellow and green apple trees believes that they do and that they can only grow if all other apple tree types can be destroyed.
Stay with me here.
Now, imagine this group uses the phrase “a garden of blooming red roses” as a way to identify each other.
If you say you like the idea of a garden of blooming red roses, the conspiracy theorists know you’re one of them. But let’s say Person B doesn’t know what the phrase means so when Person C asks them if the idea of a garden of red roses sounds good to them, they take it at face value.
After all, there’s nothing insidious about a pretty garden of roses, right?
But you know what it really means so you call it out for what it is, stating that Person C is referring to the apple conspiracy theory. Except now, you look like the crazy person because Person B thinks it’s harmless and Person C insists it is. Even worse, Person B now feels compelled to align themselves with Person C who seems like the more rational one between you two.
Dog whistles don’t always have to be political in nature nor do they need to be words. One of the most common “secret codes” you can find online belongs to pro-ana groups on various social media sites who identify each other using butterfly emojis and symbols.
A few years ago, claims that the Pepe the Frog meme had alt-right connections sparked controversy from the majority of people who were, understandably, unaware of the meme’s use by radical groups.
Of course, with the Pepe meme and other dog whistles, not everybody who uses them are members of a radical group. It’s quite the opposite, really. But the point was to hide the real point and make anyone who heard detractors of the hidden message look extreme for voicing their disagreement with the message behind the meme.
According to Matt Furie, the cartoonist who created the Pepe the Frog meme, the little frog began as a character in his comic Boys Club before he was picked up online as a symbol of carefree “Feels Good Man” living.
As the meme went mainstream, though, it began to be used to spread racist, homophobic, and anti-Semitic messages, much to Furie’s distress.
However, autopsies of Pepe the Frog after a string of controversies killed his internet hype only came after the trend had passed and Pepe was no longer the it dog whistle for hate groups.
Unless you’re really down in the trenches and paying attention to the way these groups evolve their symbols and language, it’s hard to pin down their current symbols.
Right now, it’s not uncommon to find social media profiles with anime girl profile pictures that have been edited or re-drawn to hold hate symbols like the Nazi flag. But by the time someone actually gets around to studying it like they did Pepe, the trail will be cold.
You’re likely thinking “I would never end up agreeing to hateful statements, even if it was hidden in a dog whistle!” because the idea of believing in hateful ideologies goes against your self-concept or some other Freudian thing like that.
Here’s the thing, though: If you don’t keep your ear to the ground and keep an eye out for them, you’re at greater risk of being pulled into hateful rhetoric by a political dog whistle.
Yes, You Would Be Tricked by a Dog Whistle
Political dog whistles operate in ways similar to propaganda so understanding the psychology of how propaganda works can help us understand the ways in which dog whistles can be used to trick us into agreeing to hateful talking points.
The first step and the key pillar to minimizing the effects of propaganda and political dog whistles are to remember that no one is immune to propaganda.
If you hear political dog whistles long enough without figuring out what they are and are then introduced to increasingly radical talking points, chances are that you’ll start buying into the hateful rhetoric hidden in them.
Remember: The seeming harmlessness and ambiguity of political dog whistles let their users hide behind a shield of plausible deniability. If you point out that their Hokago Tea Time user photo has Yui wearing an SS uniform, they can say “Me, a racist? I just like anime girls, what’s so racist about that?“
While you might like to stay neutral and open to hearing all sides of an issue, this can also make you averse to valid criticisms of statements that insinuate hateful rhetoric.
If you catch yourself thinking “Oh, they’re just overreacting because this can’t possibly mean that,” keep in mind that the sense of absurdity you get from these situations is exactly what hate groups are banking on to get you to see them as a “neutral” and more “reasonable” position.
On day one, you’re saying yes to red rose gardens. By month one, you’re out there telling people that everyone who doesn’t like red rose gardens must be unreasonable haters. One year later, you’re out there burning down yellow and green apple trees to bring about the glorious return of red apples into the world.
This gradual “pulling away” from true neutrality that dog whistles do to their non-member listeners operates as a toned-down version of cult indoctrination that operates by driving an ideological wedge between you and other people that you don’t even realize is starting to fall into place.
3 Common Dog Whistles and What They Mean
Political dog whistles can be difficult to identify on your own since they change a lot and knowing what is and isn’t a dog whistle requires a working knowledge of what hate groups believe. So, here are some of the most common ones you can find online, at pulpits, and on national television.
1. Western Civilization
Western civilization is a common dog whistle used by white supremacist groups. The term is a nod to their belief that non-whites are slowly pushing white “natives/true citizens” out of their social and economic positions and, naturally, that these non-white “not really citizens” should be pushed back against “if we want to protect western civilization from those that would degrade it.”
MGMT’s Little Dark Age has become popular among Neo-Nazis because of the song’s use in clips that showcase throwbacks to better times. Many fascist movements are centered on myths of a “glorious past” that we “need to return to” to restore our “great nation.”
Italian philosopher Umberto Eco identifies this in his book, How to Spot A Fascist, as the fascist ideologue’s rejection of modernism which takes the position that anything new and different from the dominant culture is bad and that it’s the source of depravity we see in our world today.
Sarah E. Bond, an assistant professor of classics at the University of Iowa, came to learn the value of “western civilization” the hard way when she received death threats for saying that ancient Roman sculptures were actually painted.
In this way, hate groups also leverage another feature of fascist ideology which is appeal to social frustration.
They tell you that you’re having a hard time getting a job because all these, for example, women are competing against you in the job market. In the old days, they wouldn’t be out here doing that, they would be at home, helping you raise a good, godly family while you take care of the manly stuff.
This brings us to our next dog whistle.
2. Family Values
Family values, when used as a political dog whistle, is a phrase often used by candidates to be more relatable to the average citizen while ultimately pushing for an exclusionary agenda.
Just think of the women and children, please. We need to restore family values to preserve western civilization and protect our traditions from the outsiders who would destroy it. The outsider can be feminists, LGBTQ+ people, immigrants, etc.
As long as they can be counted as an “other,” they will suffice as strawman enemies for directing social frustration towards.
Family values imply that the heart of the national consciousness and identity is the nuclear family — a rather recent invention given that families were multi-generational for most of history — and that anyone not fitting within the mythos of the “traditional family” that upholds these family values contributes to the degradation of society.
Naturally, this excludes families that are not heterosexual, families that are headed by single parents, etc. from the “traditional ideal” which also connects it to Eco’s machismo and weaponry which he explains as “disdain for women and intolerance and condemnation of nonstandard sexual habits.”
3. Law and Order
Here’s another talking point and political dog whistle that is difficult to disagree with without being trapped framed as someone against rule of law and societal order.
But as a political dog whistle, “law and order” is used to mask an intent to strengthen the state’s capacity for violence, not just toward an external threat, but toward its own citizens should they happen to not fit the ideals of western civilization and traditional family values.
Law and order only looks like the rule of law, but its true message is one of appealing to frustration and runs counter to the rule of law.
Law and order political dog whistles and rhetoric will tell you that the rule of law is too slow, that it needs to be set aside by good citizens who favor action against a common enemy that threatens their families.
This allows radical groups to convince people to lash out against members of the “out-group” that has been marked as the source of their struggles and frustrations.
Dog Whistles Won’t Stay the Same — That’s Why They’re So Effective
If those dog whistles sound a little vague, that’s because they are vague on purpose. While being specific about what phrases are being used as dog whistles would help now, it won’t be much use later when these dog whistles change.
Remember that political dog whistles are constantly evolving so that very few people can catch onto their meaning fast enough to actually stop them from acquiring more radical adherents. The easiest way that’s still effective in the long run is to explain the underlying themes of common political dog whistles and what they mean.