An expression or statement that has a secondary meaning intended to be understood only by a particular group of people.
Think phrases like “family values,” “government spending,” and “ethics in games journalism.”

The anatomy of a dogwhistle

Is Rep. Ilhan Omar actually using dogwhistles when she speaks about Israel, or do her critics just not know what a dogwhistle is?

In December of 2016, President Barack Obama refused to veto United Nations Resolution 2334, allowing a measure demanding the immediate halt of all Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem to pass. While Israel publicly declared that it would not comply with the resolution’s terms, this did not stop the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish Human Rights center that founded and runs the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles and named after a famed Holocaust survivor and Nazi hunter, from declaring the near-symbolic gesture as 2016’s most anti-Semitic incident. Hyperbole aside, the reaction to Obama’s decision was bipartisan outrage, drawing unanimous ire not only from House Republicans but from half of House Democrats. After eight years of vocally supporting a two-state solution but not taking any actions against Israeli settlement overreach, Obama’s parting blow served to signal not only the start of a generational shift in how the left views Israel, but also a shift within Congress condoning criticism of one of America’s closest allies.

Fast forward two years. Democrats are clearly split on Israel, Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib is the first Palestinian-American woman in the House of Representatives and, along with Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, is one of the first two Muslim women in Congress. Tlaib and Omar both openly support the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement against Israel’s regime, which aims to use non-violent, economic forms of protest to pressure Israel into ending what its supporters controversially describe as a military occupation of the West Bank territories.

Omar, in particular, has recently been the subject of undue attention for making anti-Israel comments, and many have publicly accused her of anti-semitism. This criticism flared up last month after Omar lightly razzed the pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC by tweeting, “It’s all about the Benjamins baby” (like from the Puff Daddy song) in an attempt to call out the organization for funneling vast sums of money to politicians who then say and do whatever AIPAC wants them to, provoking a backlash from those who pointed out the anti-Semitic undertone of associating the Jewish people with shady financial practices. Several follow-up backlashes ensued, yielding a messy and confusing discourse that somehow snowballed into a House resolution against bigotry.

Rep. Omar speaking in January 2019.

Rep. Omar speaking in January 2019.

Just when it seemed like the nation had moved onto other issues — from Trump’s withholding of aid to Puerto Rico to the floods in the Midwest to dealing with the existential threat posed by climate change to the non-release of the Mueller report — the flurry of Omar criticism returned, this time at the annual conference of AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobbying group that Omar had called out in her “Benjamins” tweet. Chuck Schumer, the Senate Minority leader and one of the most prominent Democrats in elected office, pleaded with AIPAC attendees to “look past” Omar’s remarks and trust that the Democrats would continue to be a pro-Israel party. Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, fresh off becoming the first sitting Israeli prime minister to be indicted on corruption charges, was more direct in his video address to the conference, telling attendees to “Take it from this Benjamin: It is not about the Benjamins.”

Some of the accusations against Omar have obviously been made in bad faith. It is doubtless that Omar cares about the well-being of America’s Jewish community more than Trump — who called for Omar’s resignation from Congress in a flag-hugging embrace of the fallacy that anti-Zionism is always tantamount to anti-semitism, while simultaneously using his platform to stoke anti-semitic sentiment on the American right — does. However, a significant amount of criticism coming her way has been arguing that it is of course possible to criticize Israel without being anti-Semitic. Just not the way she’s been doing i

Beyond more comic examples like Meghan McCain sobbing about how Omar’s comments offended her Zionism and, uh, this, it is hard to find a single tweet, article, or Voxplainer about the Omar imbroglio that does not ask whether she’s using anti-semitic dogwhistles in her criticism of Israel. The liberal consensus, spelled out most neatly by Jonathan Greenblatt of the Anti-Defamation League, is that Omar’s statements aren’t a pointed, leftist foreign-policy critique, but instead loaded with coded language meant to signal her anti-semitic attitude and bring them out in others. Even the more sympathetic takes from liberals, which admit that Omar has valid points about Israeli forces going too far under Netanyahu’s regime, think she should find a better way of making them. And more often than not, even the takes that view Omar as a human being who is willing to grow and learn take for granted that she has been, as Tablet journalist and frequent Trump critic Yair Rosenberg writes, “blowing anti-Semitic dogwhistles,” which has come to be the go-to buzzword for describing what, specifically, is wrong with her rhetoric.

So, what is a dogwhistle, and has Omar been using them?

First things first. Merriam Webster defines “dogwhistle” as “an expression or statement that has a secondary meaning intended to be understood only by a particular group of people.” According to Safire’s Political Dictionary, the term was first used in a political manner in 1988 by The Washington Post’s Richard Morin, who wrote that in the field of political opinion polling, “Respondents hear something in the question that researchers do not.��� A dogwhistle is a way of conveying a message to a specific audience in a way that people not in that specific audience won’t pick up. You know how you can blow a whistle at a frequency that humans can’t hear but will make a dogs go nuts? Well, imagine that instead of a whistle, you had words or images, and instead of making dogs go nuts, you made bigots get very happy and potentially donate more to your political campaign, all without non-bigots noticing that anything important was said.

Here’s Ronald Reagan dogwhistling about how family values are under attack.

Think of conservative politicians who build their platforms on “family values”: to those who are unfamiliar with the way this term is used in conservative circles — to decry non-heterosexual relationships and independent women who have s-e-x outside of marriage — it sounds innocuous; meanwhile, the conservative base hears the phrase as confirmation that a politician shares their retrograde views. Importantly, in using this term a politician does not alienate other voters who don’t share the views implied by it, helping them court the ultra-right without turning away moderates.

While it is easy to find thinkpieces questioning whether Omar has been dogwhistling, it is harder to find any that are willing to unpack what exactly they mean when they say that she’s dogwhistling. As a non-Zionist Jew, I am well aware of the ways that anti-Zionism can be used to mask anti-semitism, as well as the ways that legitimate criticism of Zionism can be dismissed as mere anti-semitism. I can’t help but wonder if criticism of one of the first Muslim women in Congress using coded rhetoric is itself meant to play off of Islamophobic ideas of Muslims being anti-Semitic. Perhaps this could explain why some Republican members of the House were upset that a resolution originally intended to be against anti-semitism in light of Omar’s remarks turned into a broader resolution against hate. (Even though some of their own track records on anti-semitism are, shall we say, less than stellar.)

The political landscape is a minefield of unintentional covert dogwhistles, and it’s not an accident that it has become so hard to talk about so many issues central to our democracy.

But even when criticism comes from progressive voices that have no intention of harboring Islamophobic attitudes, the general willingness to focus on Omar’s alleged dogwhistling ends up priming their audience to think of one of the first Muslim women in Congress in similar terms to the evil conservative politicians and Fox News pundits who are the usual suspects when we think of dogwhistling. As a philosopher of language, I spend a lot of time considering the ways that our words can silence others. I am worried that throwing the “dogwhistle” accusations around is serving this purpose here, perhaps originally intentionally by bad faith critics, but now unintentionally by a much larger, more liberal audience. This is because, as we’ll now see, dogwhistles typically work by literally saying something irrelevant or trivial that has hidden content that only a certain group will catch, effectively turning Omar’s criticisms of Israel into mere background noise to be filtered out.

Omar has been in the news this past month for two separate alleged dogwhistles. First, there was the aforementioned “Benjamins” tweet, in which Omar accused American politicians of taking the Benjamins of AIPAC. (She has since deleted the tweet.) Then, there was an incident in which she tweeted about how she should not have to “Pledge allegiance to a foreign country” in order to represent her district, explaining that she is often told she is anti-American if she is not pro-Israel.

To Omar’s credit, when people have brought to her attention the tropes that some Jews believe are being played off in these discussions, she is quick to disavow them and apologize, stating that she is always learning and urging us to pay attention to the broader message. However, the broader question of whether or not she’s been dogwhistling at all is a tricky one.

As recent philosophers of language, most notably Jennifer Saul at Waterloo (previously Sheffield), have made clear, there’s not just one kind of dogwhistle. In Saul’s article “Dogwhistles, Political Manipulation, and Philosophy of Language,” published in 2018 in an Oxford University Press anthology on new work in speech acts, Saul distinguishes between four kinds of dogwhistles, arguing that the term can be used in both an overt or covert way, and either intentionally or unintentionally.

The classic example is the overt, intentional dogwhistle. What makes it overt is that an “in-group” will understand that they are being signaled to, and what makes it intentional is that a speaker wants that group to recognize their coded speech. My earlier example of conservatives who harp on “family values” is an overt and intentional dogwhistle. Or consider how George W. Bush, during the lead-up to the 2004 election, talked about his opposition to the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Dred Scott case. What could possibly be relevant, in 2004, about his opposition to a pro-slavery ruling from 1857? Nothing, but as Saul writes, it’s common practice in ultra-right circles to signal opposition to Roe v. Wade by saying that the Supreme Court has gotten things wrong in the past, pointing to the Dred Scott ruling as a prime example. The overt intentional dogwhistle, in other words, scans as irrelevant to those not sympathetic to the speaker’s intent.

George W. Bush offers his Dred Scott dogwhistle in response to the question asked around the 1:17:20 mark.

One popular interpretation of Omar’s language, as exemplified by this op-ed from the conservative New York Times editorial writer Bret Stephens (sorry), is that she uses overt intentional dogwhistles. Stephens seems to think that there’s no other explanation for why Omar would bring up the influence of a lobbying group other than to knowingly signal her bigoted beliefs about Jews, money, and power. This fits into Saul’s point that overt dogwhistles just don’t make sense if we take them literally.

Omar’s suggestion that pro-Israel lobbying money is at least partially responsible for vicious conservative defenses of Israel is very much a relevant, non-trivial thing to say. Furthermore, we can find evidence for her claim that, “I am told every day that I am anti-American if I am not pro-Israel” even from members of her own party: In response to her statements, Representative Juan Vargas of San Diego County literally tweeted, “Questioning support for the U.S.-Israel relationship is unacceptable.” The specificity of her statements, along with the many indicators that those statements are true, undercut the argument that Omar has been using this type of dogwhistle.

Since Omar is making emboldened critiques that few members of Congress, let alone those on the Foreign Affairs committee on which she serves, have ever been willing to make, it would be a shame if her words were assumed to be trivial or irrelevant noise to be filtered out. But it is in the interest of pro-Israel groups that these criticisms be filtered out, and in following suit by talk of dogwhistles and tropes, even those journalists and politicians who are sympathetic to Omar’s points end up burying them by adopting this talk.

Not all dogwhistles are overt, however, and not all criticisms of Omar argue that she uses overt dogwhistles. While overt dogwhistles function by getting a specific audience to recognize that they’re being spoken to by somebody who shares their agenda, covert dogwhistles do their work precisely because their audience does not realize they’re being spoken to. Examples of this, according to Saul, are terms like “inner-city,” or “government spending,” both of which tend to elicit specific, and specifically negative, responses among people with racial prejudices, even if they are used in ways that don’t mention race at all. Originally, according to a 2002 study published in the American Political Science Review, political campaigns introduced such terms alongside explicitly racial imagery, but over time they have taken on a life of their own, and their mere mention is sufficient to evoke biases in those who have them.

Perhaps Omar’s tweets do meet the criteria to be considered covert dogwhistles. Samuel J. Aronson, a historian at Georgetown who studies the Holocaust, argues in a Medium post that the mere mention of money and power in the context of Jews can call anti-semitic attitudes to the forefront — certain people will be more likely to view Israel unfavorably if they’re thinking about Israel after being primed to think of the illicit power of Jews.

But Aronson fails to appreciate how pervasive, common, and seemingly inevitable unintentional uses of covert dogwhistles are. The political landscape is a minefield of unintentional covert dogwhistles, and it’s not an accident that it has become so hard to talk about so many issues central to our democracy — encouraging the government to spend more, or encouraging a renewed investment in the “inner cities” — without calling on attitudes that can undermine our democracy’s ability to function properly. Applied to Omar, it does not seem wrong to say that one Jewish-led lobbying group uses money to buy power, but if it is true that terms like “money” and “power” have acquired covert dogwhistle status for Jews, it is hard to see how she can possibly levy this critique without dogwhistling.

Avoiding unintentional covert dogwhistles is not impossible, and if Omar or anybody else were acting like it was, that would be troublesome. Saul considers studies that suggest that the way to combat the effects of these dogwhistles is not to avoid imagery about the group in question all together. Instead, providing “counter-stereotypical” imagery about the group can undermine what might otherwise land as a dogwhistle. So, rather than focusing on Israel and AIPAC without saying anything about the Jewish people, some might argue that Omar could soften her rhetoric by speaking positively about the magnanimity and philanthropy of the Jewish people before getting to her critiques. But this highlights the bind Omar is in: By having to talk about Jews in order to talk about Israel, she would be buying into the logic that conflates Judaism and Zionism.

Moreover, going back to the original definition of dogwhistling, the exact language used is supposed to matter. Even a subtle shift in language influences how respondents answer questions. But Omar is not saying that Jews use money to buy power. She is not saying that Jews have dual allegiance. I was originally sympathetic to the idea that she was inadvertently using covert dogwhistles, but perhaps blamelessly so. But looking at her statements a few weeks later, they are at best dangerously close to being in the ballpark of inadvertent dogwhistles. When Omar is criticized for dogwhistling, there’s a subtle implication that because it should be easy to avoid using anti-semitic in criticisms of Israel, the fact that she seemingly can’t help but use them is therefore evidence of her anti-semitism. This would be true when it comes to overt dogwhistles: It’s very easy to oppose or support gay marriage without dogwhistling. If Omar was using overt dogwhistles, even unintentionally, and couldn’t manage to get out a tweet about Israel without using them, this would give us pause. But not only is it much harder to avoid covert dogwhistles once they’ve sprouted up, but it is even harder to avoid saying things that kinda sorta sound like them.

It is common to use the academic jargon du jour to make simple points sound nuanced. This is how grown adults throwing tantrums for not being allowed to say whatever they want, wherever they want, without consequences end up identifying themselves as victims of “silencing” and a culture of “safe spaces.” In this case, the focus on Omar’s potential use of dogwhistles makes her critics sound much more reflective and subtle than if they said what they mean: She is using words that sound similar to words that are used in anti-semitic rhetoric, even though it is damn near impossible to make the legitimate points she is trying to make without using words that sound similar to those words. If this is just what dogwhistling meant, then no harm no foul. But our colloquial sense of dogwhistling is far more malicious, making it sound like one of the first Muslim congresswomen is signaling her bigotry to fellow anti-semites. So by talking of dogwhistling, even her good-faith critics are shifting the focus and blame onto Omar and away from a discussion of why, exactly, it is so hard for anyone to talk about Israel.