Dr Demetris Tillyris’ most recent paper on dog-whistle politics has been now published by the British Journal of Politics and International Relations.
The paper explores the phenomenon of dog-whistling in public life – a phenomenon which has recently become mainstream in our political lexicon, but which remains poorly understood.
Whilst dog-whistling is generally construed as a species of racist propaganda , it is specifically invoked in at least two different ways. The first, narrow conception, conceives of dog-whistling as a secret language, and reduces it to deplorable, clandestine rhetorical operations. For instance, the terms “states’ rights”, “welfare” and “inner cities” (amongst others), popular amongst Republican politicians, constitute veiled references to “African Americans”, and – as numerous studies illustrate – effective, coded appeals to the racially resentful. The second, seemingly more expansive, conception is utilised against narratives which communicate racist views more overtly. For example, the cries of dog-whistling were heard loud and clear against Boris Johnson’s description of veiled women as ‘bank robbers’ and ‘letterboxes’.
These examples reveal the conceptual vacuity of the rhetoric of dog-whistling and of accusations of it. This paper articulates a more precise conceptualisation of dog-whistling and goes some way towards untangling the ambiguity about the term. Contra the narrow and seemingly more expansive conceptions of that phenomenon, the paper suggests that dog-whistling should not be reduced to racism or verbal communication tactics. Rather, it can be combined with a range of different worldviews; and, it might encompass a multiplicity of verbal and non-verbal communicative means which serve to nudge or wink at a specific sub-group, and which are intended to remain inaudible to those who espouse different worldviews and/or who might deem more explicit appeals disagreeable or offensive. By separating the content from the technique of dog-whistling, and thereby rethinking dog-whistling along the aforementioned lines, the paper sheds new light on the question of what place dog-whistling should have in a democratic polity. Contra the prevalent conviction that dog-whistling is detrimental to democratic politics – that, a democratic polity should be inhospitable to dog-whistling tout court and that democratic politicians should steer clear of it – the paper suggests that dog-whistling qua technique, might not be as problematic as is often thought. This is not to say that dog-whistling poses no problems to our politics, or that certain manifestations of it are not dangerous for democracy. Rather, the paper carves some room for dog-whistling in democratic politics. It suggests: i) that dog-whistling, might be a ‘lesser vice’ vis-à-vis a politics of zealous, uncontaminated candour; and, ii) more affirmatively, that democratic societies might be implicated in creating the impetus to dog-whistling – democratic politicians operate in a messy context which often renders dog-whistling necessary.
The argument articulated in the paper has crucial implications for the ancient-old question of how to conceive of democratic politics and what it means to lead a virtuous political life in this context. Specifically, it casts doubt on a set of core aspirations of democratic theory, and of the conventional vogue of the deliberative turn which fuels scholarly dismissals of dog-whistling – the conviction that there exists an affinity between a liberal democratic culture, unconditional transparency, and the realisation of the common good. Correspondingly, it also poses problems for historically persistent, albeit recently more pronounced, lamentations that ours is an age of a deepening moral crisis in public life, marked by the rise of post-truth politics. This is not to say
that anything goes in public life. The argument developed in the paper suggests that we should re-think the place of critique in democratic politics and sets the foundations for an alternative way of critiquing forms of discourse without perpetuating romanticised visions of democracy.
You can read the full article for free here: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/13691481231208147
Dr Demetris Tillyris is Senior Lecturer in political philosophy. He teaches on undergraduate and postgraduate courses at CCCU. He specialises in Contemporary Political Philosophy and the History of Political Thought. Specifically, his research focuses on ethical questions and problems in contemporary public life. He welcomes applications for PhD supervision on these topics.
Cover Photo by Mathieu Gervais: https://www.pexels.com/photo/dog-near-field-14666144/