Tuesday, 18 September 2018

On dog whistles and witch-finders

Back when President Trump was mere candidate Trump, an American professor published an article, arguing that Trump is anti-Semitic. The professor claimed to have overwhelming evidence; all from Trump's public statements; all in Trump's own words. I read the article, as I had completely failed to notice any trace of anti-Semitism from Trump. However, what I found was not evidence of anti-Semitism, but rather the argument that every time Trump referred to banks and finance capitalism, he really meant Jews and that his supporters knew this and he was appealing to their anti-Semitism. According to the professor, Trump was speaking in a secret code that was only accessible to other anti-Semities.

Unfortunately, this form of argument is depressingly common. There is even a noun-phrase for it. It is called dog whistle racism. It is from Australian English and has infected the whole of the English speaking world. And the political media elite love it. I suspect Joseph Heller would have loved it too, for it has all the Alice in Wonderland logic of his famous Catch 22.

Anyone can be accused of dog whistle racism on the basis of anything they have ever said or written because the words do not mean what they denote; they mean whatever the accuser claims they mean. And no one is allowed to dissent. Because dissent would mean supporting a racist and only a racist would support racism.

Once someone is accused of dog whistle racism there is no defence. How could there be? The accusation is evidence-free. The "proof" is words that do not mean what they say, but what the accuser says they mean. Any protest is immediately interpreted as further "evidence" of the racism of the accused. This is the kind of charge that witch-finders developed in the late middle ages. The accusation is made and the accused is guilty: it is just a matter of how deep that guilt goes.

If all this strikes you as completely senseless, I am afraid I can only say, Wait, it gets worse. It gets worse because the very definition of dog whistle racism is that it is a secret code that only the racists are capable of recognising. Thus, strictly speaking when someone accuses another of dog whistle racism, they are, in effect, accusing themselves of being racist. Yet, no one ever points out this simple, obvious logical and linguistic point. The accusers get a free pass. No one says, How come you are able to read this secret racist code that is only known to racists?

And it gets even worse. Anyone who is unable to read this secret, racist code is not presumed to be not racist. On the contrary, claiming to not know the secret, racist code is immediately construed as support for the racist and thus not being able to decipher the secret code is paradoxically considered to prove racism.

The notion of dog whistle racism shows just how radical is the political media elite's rejection of the values of the Enlightenment. Not only have they completely rejected evidence, due process, and the presumption of innocence; they have invented a noun (phrase) that is an accusation that is itself supposed to be the evidence that proves the guilt of the accused and cannot be challenged: indeed any attempted defence is construed as proof of even greater guilt. Moreover, should anyone come to the defence of the accused, they too will be subjected to precisely the same treatment.

In a world where the notion of dog whistle racism exists one is either with the witch-finders or one is a witch; or at least in imminent danger of becoming a witch. 

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