nunberg at ISCHOOL.BERKELEY.EDU
Thu Apr 3 05:49:22 UTC 2014
I'm doing a Fresh Air piece on dog-whistle language, or more generally on political language coded for race -- "states rights," "forced busing," "food stamp president," "hard-working Americans,'" etc. The standard understanding of the phenomenon is as language that sends a signal to one part of the electorate which isn’t audible to anyone else—Safire gave the example of George W. Bush's discreet high-fives to Christian conservatives. But it's my sense the term is used now for any oblique language (particularly as regards race), whether or not the general audience can pick up the meaning, so long as the speaker can plausibly--or often, not so plausibly)--deny that interpretation (cancel the implicature?)
So Krugman called Paul Ryan's reference to "inner city culture" a dog whistle, and Barbara Lee said "when Mr. Ryan says 'inner city,' when he says, 'culture,' these are simply code words for what he really means: 'black.'” But that's sort of like saying that "Park Avenue" is a code word for "rich." You don't need a Captain Midnight secret decoder ring to get it.
A lot of people call these items euphemisms:
> These days, phrases like "voter suppression" are used by Democrats the same way Republicans in favor of photo ID laws use "voter fraud" as really trying to say.
> As long as dog whistle demagogues stick to racial euphemisms, colorblindness de- fends them against every charge of racial pandering. (This from Ian Haney Lopez recent Dog-Whistle Politics, a very good survey of the phenomenon).
> As long as dog whistle demagogues stick to racial euphemisms, colorblindness de- fends them against every charge of racial pandering.
That seems wrong. The point of a euphemism (e.g., "backside," "facilities") is not to obscure the reference but to refer to it more decorously, and the reference can't be disavowed—you can't say, "I meant your backside, not your ass." And 'euphemism' implies that there's something impolite or unsavory about the word it replaces, which is not the case here. There's nothing about "Jew" needs to be eeuphemized, and when you describe a Jew as "New Yorker" or (historically) as a "city boy," you're not doing it in the name of delicacy.
I like the description the philosopher John Holbo at Crooked Timber has used, "impolite fictions," but that doesn't get at the semantic process here, which it seems to me to involve referring to X via one of its stereotypical properties (as, e.g, "inner city," "food stamp users") with the intention of evoking but not actually denoting it. (Or maybe I should make that, "referring to X by naming something to which X stereotypcially applies -- e.g., food stamp users are stereotypically black.) But what should it be called?
The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org
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