If you are starting a WOX (War On X), this entails that there is no significant and sustained attack on X. For example, there is no significant and sustained attack on Christmas, so the War on Christmas has been built on fabrications, hyperbole, and intentionally bad logic. But what if there is something like X, Y, that is under significant and sustained attack? The obvious answer is that you would not need to start a WOY (War on Y), you could provide reasonable evidence that Y is under sustained and significant attack. But what if openly claiming that Y is under attack would have negative consequences? For example, while there is no significant and sustained attack on white Americans by “the left”, there is a sustained and significant attack on white supremacy in the United States. But if you openly defended white supremacy and lamented that it is under fire, you would face consequences.
Because of this, some people claim that “you can’t say anything anymore.” While obviously hyperbole, this assertion is often used to complain that people can face consequences for remarks they would have been able to make with impunity in the past. In some cases, this complaint has merit and free expression is being wrongly infringed upon. In other cases, people are merely facing consequences for violating the current social norms.
The United States has undergone various normative changes over the years. These changes include alterations in laws, etiquette, aesthetics, and moral values. The area of aesthetics is non-controversial: everyone gets that fashion, hair styles, music, and such change over time. Since I started teaching in 1993, I have witnessed these changes in my students: styles and music that were in vogue back in the 1990s are now hopelessly out of date (until they become retro cool). Another obvious area of change is American racism. While racism is still a serious problem, American norms have changed so that open racism is no longer acceptable. There are also many other things that are now unacceptable to say openly, so what can you do if what you want to say is something that would lead to consequences you are unwilling to face? Fortunately, there is a way to say such things without saying them. As would be expected, racism provides an excellent example and Lee Atwater ably explains how to do this:
You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968, you can’t say “nigger” – that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now, you’re talking about cutting taxes. And all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me – because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”
What Atwater is describing is the use of what is known as a dog whistle. One version of the dog whistle is to use coded language whose true (and usually controversial or problematic) meaning is understood by your intended audience but not understood by the general population. This is analogous to how slang terms and technical terms work; you need to know the special meanings of the terms to understand what is being said. Another version of the dog whistle is a form of innuendo. A word or phrase is used to suggest or imply something (usually negative). If you do not know the special meanings or the intended implication, you are excluded, often intentionally so.
The coded or suggestive words or phrases will also (usually) have neutral or even positive meanings to the general population. This feature allows you to say what you want to say to your intended audience without the general population knowing what you really mean. For example, “thug” and “urban” have neutral meanings to many but are also coded words used for racist dog whistles. “Bossy” is an example of a sexist dog whistle. While using one can raise moral concerns, the dog whistle has many advantages.
The advantages of the dog whistle include:
- Your fellows know what you mean, and they approve.
- Your foes know what you mean, and they are triggered.
- Critics can seem silly or crazy to “normies.”
- Plausible deniability that “normies” will accept.
- Can onramp “normies.”
As noted above, coded and suggestive words work like slang—those in the know will understand what you mean. These people tend to split into two groups. There are your fellows who will presumably approve of your dog whistle. There are also your foes who are likely to be triggered—they know what you mean, and it will probably outrage them, especially when you whistle loudly in public. Fortunately, if these foes try to criticize you or explain what you really mean, they are likely to seem silly or crazy to “normies” (people who do not know the codes). Over the years, I have tried to explain dog whistles to intelligent, educated “normies” and I usually fail—they tend to think that I am either just getting it wrong or that I have a nefarious motivation. As such, the dog whistle can provide a double victory: you send a clear message to your fellows while also “owning” the “libs” as they are frustrated by trying to explain your dog whistle to people who are oblivious. Even if your foes make some headway, a dog whistle provides plausible deniability. You can insist that you were using the words in the “normal” way and even that you had no idea that they are coded or suggestive. For example, a politician might warn voters not to “monkey this up” by electing their (black) opponent. When it is pointed out that this is a well-known racist dog whistle, the politician can plead ignorance and say they did not intend to use it that way. While their fellows and their foes get exactly what was meant, most normies will either be baffled or accept the explanation. Finally, dog whistles can help on-ramp normies.
While normies would be appalled by, for example, openly bigoted language, they can be lured onto the path by dog whistles. This is usually done by appealing to legitimate or sensible fears hopes and concerns. For example, it is reasonable to be concerned that K-12 athletes are being treated fairly. But “fairness” can be used as a dog whistle that might lure people down the path of being anti-trans without them realizing how they ended up there. But dog whistles do have a disadvantage.
Laying aside the usual moral concerns, the sole disadvantage of the dog whistle is that “normies” can catch on and start to hear them. Once enough normies recognize a dog whistle, it is no longer useful since the point of a dog whistle is that you can present two different meanings to your two audiences (your fellows and the “normies”). This problem can be addressed by switching to a similar dog whistle that the normies have yet to decode or by creating a new dog whistle word or phrase. The far right does this routinely and never seems to be at a loss for new dog whistles; such is the power of language. While it is unlikely that the normies will decode your whistle while you are in mid-sentence, a clever whistler checks their whistles and keeps up with what codes have been cracked.
As an example of how to use this method, imagine that you wanted to claim that there is a War on Girls and Women. I do not, obviously, mean the sustained and systematic problems with sexism and misogyny. This is, after all, supposed to be a WOX and not address the real problems women and girls face. You can note that over the past decade trans athletes have been able to compete in accord with now well-established rules. While some people do come out as openly anti-trans, many normies see this as bigotry. So, if you want to say something anti-trans while not spooking the normies, you can use the dog whistle of fairness: you have nothing against trans people; you are just asking questions about fairness. Surely it would be “unfair” if a young girl had to compete in sports with a burly boy…or, rather, a trans person. There must, then, be a War on Girls and Women! No, not systematic sexism. Again, this is a WOX. This concludes my series on the WOX and is the WOX to end all WOXs.