Part 1: Dog whistles – a socially destructive form of discrimination

SWU Blog Series | Part 1: Dog whistles - a socially destructive form of discrimation

Understanding how dog whistles work, how they affect vulnerable and marginalised communities, and how to diffuse them are important tools for social workers.

Dr Shawn Major is the Communications, Policy, and Engagement Officer for the Social Workers Union. She earned her PhD in Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University and is a Canadian who now calls the UK her home. Shawn is passionate about social justice and co-chairs the BASW UK & SWU LGBTQIA+ Action Group.

You may or may not be familiar with the term “dog whistle” in a political context, but you most certainly have seen these coded messages in both UK and international media. Here are some dog whistle phrases you may have encountered that aim antagonistic messages at marginalised groups: “race realism,” “benefit scroungers”, “gay agenda”, “trans ideology”, “gold-plating human rights and equalities legislation”, and “invasion on our southern coast”.

The political meaning of “dog whistle” was added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary in 2017 and has been defined as “an expression or statement that has a secondary meaning intended to be understood only by a particular group of people.”

Dog whistles cause real and lasting harm. Recognising and challenging discrimination is a key pillar of social work and this blog series aims to give social work professionals the tools to detect and decipher these coded messages. In Parts 2 – 4 of this blog series, people with lived experience will discuss the harm that this type of discrimination and stoking of prejudice has caused to individuals and communities.

How do political dog whistles work?

Dog whistles are a calculated tactic used to manipulate and stoke prejudice in others. Dog whistles are often deployed with the aim to spread and amplify racism, xenophobia, antisemitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, aporophobia, or other antagonistic attitudes towards marginalised groups. Plausible deniability and reliance on “outgroups” not understanding the coded message aimed at the “ingroup” are key components for all dog whistles.

Dog whistles work in two ways: The first type of dog whistle communicates specific views in a coded fashion to a subset of an audience – for example, a politician could use this type of dog whistle to communicate certain views with the intent to avoid alienating potential supporters who do not share these views. Someone could also use this type of dog whistle in a social media post to convey discriminatory views while trying to avoid the appearance of violating social media platform rules that prohibit hateful conduct and hate speech.

Deb Solomon shares the impact that these dog whistles can have on neurodivergent people growing up and in the workplace in Part 3 of this blog series. In Part 4, jane fae also discusses common transphobic and anti-LGBTQIA+ dog whistles and how to keep up with the evolving language.

The second type of dog whistle aims to activate associations and stoke pre-existing attitudes without the audience’s awareness. Narinder Sidhu explores a very contemporary example in Part 2 which takes a more in depth look at racist dog whistles.

When the silent part is said out loud, it’s just a whistle

That all being said, there is a straightforward way to counter dog whistles.

Legal scholar Professor Ian Haney-López says, “Dog whistles only work as long as most people don’t know about them.” Dog whistles are diffused when all messages contained in the statement are made explicit because then it’s not a dog whistle anymore; it’s a whistle that everyone can hear.

Political scientist Professor Tali Mendelberg wrote, “In the age of equality, politicians cannot prime race with impunity due to a norm of racial equality that prohibits racist speech.” In the UK this “norm of equality” can also be applied – at varying levels – to other characteristics protected by the Equality Act 2010.

The “norm of equality” is one of the main reasons that dog whistles are used to communicate these messages; the coded message part of the statement could result in widespread social disapproval if it was explicitly stated. If explicitly stated, the discriminatory message could have other repercussions including exclusion from a social media platform for violating terms of service or being considered a criminal offence.

People do generally want to avoid perpetuating discrimination like racism or ableism and this is reflected in both UK government legislation and the ongoing moderation of large-scale social media platforms. So in general, when there is a suggestion that a statement might be discriminatory, people will reflect on the statement and “self-monitor” to block antagonistic attitudes from influencing their thoughts on the subject.

Dog whistles work because prejudices exist

Unfortunately, this diffusion tactic only works with accepted norms of equality. If a form of discrimination does not violate an accepted norm of equality – that is to say, if prejudice is harboured towards the group(s) of people alluded to by the dog whistle – then that audience will not engage in “self-monitoring”. In this case the dog whistle reaches its target “ingroup” of the audience who either don’t find the message problematic or who agree with it to some degree.

The paper Immigration in the Brexit campaign: Protean dogwhistles and political manipulation gives an example of this with the topic of immigration: “In short, for different portions of the audience, immigration will function differently: for some it may not be a dogwhistle at all. For others, it may be a dogwhistle about any or all of the following: foreigners, Eastern Europeans, refugees, Muslims, Syrians, or dark-skinned people.”

Dog whistles are frequently used on social media platforms as a way for people who share certain prejudices to connect and reach out to wider audiences. The paper Covert Hate Speech: White Nationalists and Dog Whistle Communication on Twitter explains how Twitter has been used as a channel to convey white supremacist ideas to a broader audience and signal belonging among far-right communities while staying under the radar of detection.

In his article Campaign 2016 Vocabulary Lesson: ‘Strategic Racism’, Professor Haney-López describes how dog whistling goes beyond the personal prejudices of individuals – even if they are a powerful politician – and how it threatens nations:

“It’s socially destructive, intentionally firing the ugliest passions and pitting people against each other. It undermines democracy, manipulating voters through appeals to their worst instincts while distorting the real issues of the day. It’s an economic catastrophe, convincing working people to fear other vulnerable populations and instead to cast their lot with the plutocrats. It shatters the ‘we,’ destroying our commitment to the community and public and instead fostering frightened isolation and anomie.”

Leave no one behind in the fight for social justice

The Social Workers Union (SWU) remains committed to pursuing the concept of social justice through challenging oppression, respecting diversity, advocating for access to and equal distribution of resources, challenging unjust policies and practices and ultimately exercising our duty both collectively and individually to challenge social conditions that contribute to oppression, social exclusion, stigma, or subjugation and to work towards a more inclusive society.

SWU shares a social work value base with the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) – as expressed in the BASW Code of Ethics and Values – with a commitment to act ethically and to protect and promote the rights of people who need to or who access social work services.

SWU and BASW members who have experienced discrimination at work and are in need of employment advice can make an appointment to speak to a duty worker from the Advice and Representation team to begin with, by contacting or calling 0121 622 8413.

Members and non-members alike are welcome to ask questions at the Talk to SWU: workplace issues webinars which are held regularly throughout the year. This free advice webinar series is set up so that questions can be asked anonymously.

Continue reading this blog series to learn about different types of dog whistles from people who have experienced them first-hand:

You may also be interested in reading the SWU blog Intersectionality is a valuable tool for Social Work Practice which is a precursor to this series.