One of the more distressing features of the US political system is the heavy reliance on what has been termed “dog whistles” by reactionary and regressive politicians and political candidates. A “dog whistle” is a message that is designed to activate a positive emotional response in the candidate’s core supporters, whilst plausibly appearing either anodyne or completely different to uncomitted listeners.
“Dog Whistles” are in some ways a form of innuendo, another form of indirect speech that I am very familiar with, having grown up in the UK in an era where you were not allowed to directly mention or talk about sex on radio or television. As a result, innuendo became a standard device for introducing sex into programs, while allowing the performers to plausibly (if deceptively) answer in response to objections “I have no idea what you’re talking about. What did YOU think I was talking about?”.
Historians and fans of old English literature will recognize the same underlying indirect speech pathology in the old story of the murder of Thomas Beckett in 1170, after the King of England, in exasperation, uttered the classic line “Will nobody rid me of this turbulent priest?”. Another excellent example of indirect speech (drawn from the London East End gangster world), showing the sinister potential, is on display starting at 01:46 of this comedy sketch from Monty Python about a shakedown.
One of the classic early political “dog whistles” in the US political process was “States Rights”, a mantra first used by George Wallace when he ran for President. Supporters of Wallace hearing “States Rights” heard “I will permit states to continue with racial and ethnic discrimination”. The fundamental logical nonsense that states do not have rights, only people have rights, was never really discussed. This rhetorical sleight of hand, still used today, allowed candidates to signal to supporters that they still tacitly supported discriminatory practices.
To bring us bang up to date, Donald Trump used a “dog whistle” today, when talking about Hillary Clinton. I am pasting the Twitter exchange that sort of explains it. This example of indirect speech, when translated from the dog whistle, is revealing and sinister in equal measure. He seems to be basing his wish on the (false) premise that Hillary Clinton wants to abolish or modify the Second Amendment regulating the possession and use of firearms.
@anamariecox @jeffjarvis An excellent example of what Stephen Pinker terms "indirect speech"
— gshevlin (@gshevlin) September 17, 2016
I am not sure what the best response is to something as sinister as this. Ideally nobody would pay it any attention. However, in the current election cycle, where Donald Trump’s whole campaign seems to be predicated on old-style rabble-rousing, ignoring it may not be an option.
UPDATE – Jim Wright at Stonekettle has the best response so far:
So basically he's saying that gun nuts are dangerous and can't be trusted not to kill people they disagree with https://t.co/EBFqSXO4Ba
— Stonekettle (@Stonekettle) September 17, 2016