We've previously discussed flagging dog whistles, but I think we should discuss the use of the term "dog whistle" in questions and answers.

tim gave this answer which says

Generally when people talk about "woke indoctrination", it's a dog whistle. They don't mean woke in it's original meaning ("socially and politically aware").

Later edited to

Generally when people talk about "woke indoctrination", it's a purposefully vague dog whistle*. They don't mean woke in it's original meaning ("socially and politically aware").

  • "For decades, Republicans have used somewhat vague terms (“dog whistles”) to tap into and foment resentment against traditionally marginalized groups like Black Americans who are pushing for more rights and freedoms."

And he ends with

"Woke indoctrination" isn't the only dog-whistle in his speech. America-Last for example is a reference to the far-right America First policy (a phrase coined by Woodrow Wilson, used by the pro-fascist America First Committee, popularized by the KKK, and later used by Donald Trump).

The problem is that "dog whistle" is a pejorative term in this context. The clear implication here is that anyone who uses the term "woke indoctrination"

  1. Is a racist
  2. Is covertly signaling their racist allies

True dog whistles creates a sound that cannot be heard by humans, only dogs. The way the term is being used here, the inverse is true: only those who listen to what the poster says can hear the "true" message and, thus, identify who the dogs are. In other words, the people identifying "dog whistles" are giving the phrase their own meaning and proceeding as if that were the intended meaning. Consider this passage from tim's post

Proponents of the "woke indoctrination" conspiracy theory are of the opinion that schools are teaching white children to be ashamed of being white and are discriminated because of their whiteness (see eg this example featuring Ron DeSantis). Describing the historical and current impact of racism and discrimination is seen as a prescriptive act and indoctrination.

If you go to the provided link, you're not going to see anything at all espousing "the opinion that schools are teaching white children to be ashamed of being white and are discriminated because of their whiteness". In fact, the word "white" doesn't appear anywhere in the press release at all. But the humans have identified the "dog whistle", so it must be true here, right?

There's no way I can see to "good faith" this. The entire post boils down to

Kevin McCarthy is saying this to promote white supremacy within the Republican party, and suppress the education of children about racism

That's... a pretty extreme argument. There is no substance to the post otherwise. Contrast this with Jeff Lambert's answer. I might not agree with it, but he at least makes salient points and admits where other meanings can be had. tim leaves no such room. The ban on asking if a given political figure is fascist is instructive

When we post questions about the political positions of individual people, then we should do so by asking for actual positions on specific issues. We should not ask whether or not abstract labels apply. Why?

  1. Abstract labels almost always include a positive or negative connotation. "Fascist" is a label with an especially negative connotation. Our goal is to inform people, not convince them of our views. So applying labels with strong connotations should be avoided on this website.
  2. Abstract labels are interpreted differently by different people. It doesn't tell us as much about the political views of the person as it tells us about the political views of the person applying that label.

"dog whistle" appears to be such an abstract label.

I would propose the following rule:

The term "dog whistle" may not be used to assume the poster knows some non-obvious meaning that the original speaker meant to convey to their followers, where saying it explicitly would cause political fallout. Posts that violate the rule are subject to removal.

This way, the rule still allows good-faith posts

  1. Asking how politicians/pundits define/use the term
  2. Asking why someone (not the poster) considers a phrase to be a "dog whistle" (still needs to be good faith and answerable from that person's point of view)
  • 4
    How would we determine if the use violated those rules? This seems like it would be a highly opinionated issue.
    – Joe W
    Jan 10, 2023 at 17:52
  • 1
    @JoeW The way I am reading the suggestion is that one can't simply say "This is a dog whistle." But you can say "So and so has argued this is a dog whistle because...." My question is, suppose the rule is implemented. Should we go back and attempt to alter previous contributions to be in-line with this rule, or do we just let those be grandfathered in?
    – user5155
    Jan 10, 2023 at 17:56
  • 9
    @JoeW It shouldn't be that hard, TBH. "Why is [politician] saying [statement] is a dog whistle?" is allowed. "They said that because they're using a dog whistle" is not allowed.
    – Machavity
    Jan 10, 2023 at 17:57
  • 6
    @JeffLambert Fair question. I am proposing we make this a rule going forward. It's not worth dredging up all the old posts
    – Machavity
    Jan 10, 2023 at 18:08
  • 2
    You say it shouldn't be that hard yet I don't see an issue with the example that you gave and I am guessing that others also agree with me. I don't see anything wrong with saying someone is using a "dog whistle" or is a "dog whistle". That is just one way to say something and they can use other ways to say the same thing that might not be as subtle.
    – Joe W
    Jan 10, 2023 at 18:11
  • 1
    @JeffLambert I fail to see what is wrong with that and why it should be censored on this site.
    – Joe W
    Jan 10, 2023 at 18:13
  • 4
    @JoeW I can understand that perspective, but I can also understand the notion that claiming something is a dog whistle is itself a dog whistle to get other people not to think about it too much and just dismiss the entire argument/person/notion out of hand because of [reasons]. I myself am personally ambivalent either way.
    – user5155
    Jan 10, 2023 at 18:16
  • 3
    @JeffLambert That seems like a rather black and white perspective to prevent people from calling things out. And I would hope that we don't just resort to not thinking about something because a term was used.
    – Joe W
    Jan 10, 2023 at 18:37
  • 3
    @JoeW But that's the rub isn't it? Claiming something is a dog whistle allows you to not even consider the words in their intended context. I'm not going to claim such phrases don't exist, but it can be construed as a form of ad hominem since you're not allowing the original speaker's words to speak for themselves and instead attempting to insert your meaning into their speech. (BTW I still maintain ambivalence, but given an opportunity to argue a point I sometimes can't help it.)
    – user5155
    Jan 10, 2023 at 18:48
  • 4
    @JeffLambert And users are able to take normal actions on a post if they feel that a term is being used incorrectly, I just see trying to make a rule on this as unneeded as it isn't that much of a problem. If you feel that this term is being used incorrectly you are free to vote based on that but that doesn't mean that it should be something that requires moderators to take action.
    – Joe W
    Jan 10, 2023 at 18:58
  • 7
    Just want to point out the elephant in the room that "woke INDOCTRINATION" is anything but a good faith neutral term. The term INDOCTRINATION literally implies a dog whistle, bad faith, conspiracy, hidden agenda, you name it, of the political enemy to manipulate people to their will and that's not my opinion that's the definition of the word. So how do you expect people to say that the grass is green without allowing the color green? I see the problem that calling a fallacy to reject a position is a fallacy in itself, but if the rule is already applied here, what would be a suitable answer?
    – haxor789
    Jan 10, 2023 at 19:44
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    @haxor789: The word "indoctrination" is an overt indication that a person is opposed to it. This transparency makes it inherently not a "dog whistle" or "hidden agenda", although it may accurately be called "biased" or "loaded" language.
    – dan04
    Jan 10, 2023 at 19:55
  • 4
    @haxor789 But that's their term for it. It's not mine, nor the questioner's. And, as I noted, Jeff Lambert makes his case against it without needing "dog whistle" or any other pejorative term. "Indoctrination" has a negative connotation, but it is not pejorative. Moreover, the word is explicit (the GOP believes certain things are indoctrination, which is a statement of face). "dog whistle" means you have to guess at a meaning, and then assume everyone else knows what said "real" meaning is.
    – Machavity
    Jan 10, 2023 at 20:03
  • 1
    Guys, I think maybe I started a bad trend, and I apologize. How about some of you write up your thoughts into answers? Then we could all vote on them and stuff.
    – user5155
    Jan 10, 2023 at 20:31
  • 4
    @uhoh: I think the complaint is over answers asserting without proof that a certain phrase is a "dog whistle". Asking "What's a dog whistle?" or "Is this a dog whistle?" is different.
    – dan04
    Jan 13, 2023 at 20:31

6 Answers 6


Show, don't tell

Or rather, cite, don't assert. If a post claims something to be a dog whistle, it should support that claim with sources, just like any other claim.

The term is well-defined, see for instance Merriam-Webster:

  1. : a whistle to call or direct a dog
    especially : one sounding at a frequency inaudible to the human ear
  2. politics : an expression or statement that has a secondary meaning intended to be understood only by a particular group of people

Its second meaning is directly related to politics, so yes, it does have a place here. However, as stated, it should be supported by sources, not merely asserted.

  • 1
    Simply pointing out that a secondary meaning can be parsed, is not evidence that the speaker intended that meaning, nor that the audience received it. May 21, 2023 at 8:39
  • @KarlKnechtel which is why I think we should support any claim that something is a dog whistle.
    – SQB
    May 22, 2023 at 9:16

No we shouldn't ban this word because it does have its use even if it makes some people uncomfortable. I would argue that the question/answer that triggered this shows that it is okay to use.

While not trying to get into to much detail about the question it should be noted that what is being asked about tends to make a lot of contradictory claims.

One of the common claims we see around this is talking about families that are not made up of a man/women in school. There are many claims about what this does to the students yet there is no concern about the same talks if they involve a man/women.

  • Saying "even if it makes some people uncomfortable" comes across to me as an uncharitable way to characterize the objection. It's not about discomfort; it's about a concrete belief that the user of the term is muck-raking. May 21, 2023 at 8:40
  • @KarlKnechtel What exactly do you mean by "muk-raking"
    – Joe W
    May 21, 2023 at 14:11

While the accusation of a "dog whistle" can certainly be used as an ad hominem fallacy, there's no immediate necessity that it is. It's not even per se a fallacy to point out a sentence might have a second layer or an ulterior motive.

What it is though is an accusation of malicious intent. Which is hard to prove conclusively and would require evidence to back it up beyond the level of an opinion. Though neither is it completely impossible (referencing past accounts for example), nor is it unavoidable, you just need to replace "it is a dog whistle" with "it could be or it is likely a dog whistle". And suddenly it seizes to be a direct accusation and the required level of evidence is still there, but significantly lower as you do no longer claim certainty of malicious intent but just float the option of that.

The general problem that I see with banning calling something a dog whistle is that dog whistles, by definition, are likely to go down unnoticed so the ability to call that out is important.

And I can't quite follow this argumentation:

... makes his case against it without needing "dog whistle" or any other pejorative term. "Indoctrination" has a negative connotation, but it is not pejorative

as to why dog whistle is a pejorative while indoctrination is not. If anything indoctrination is a much more direct accusation of malicious or even criminal intent than dog whistle. First of all it's by default in the same ballpark and could easily serve as a drop in replacement and secondly it has a much more negative connotation.

Moreover, the word is explicit (the GOP believes certain things are indoctrination, which is a statement of face). "dog whistle" means you have to guess at a meaning, and then assume everyone else knows what said "real" meaning is

If it would be an actual statement of fact they'd need to prove that, which is again pretty difficult to conclusively prove malicious intent and is rarely if ever done as a consequence of it. Also, people will probably happily agree that they think this is meant to create a more free and equal society with less discrimination, but that would make the term "indoctrination" sound weird and misplaced. Like that whole negative connotation wouldn't work. Which actually hints at it being a dog whistle in that it tries to transport a message without obvious perception. Which is not a direct analogy to the actual dog whistle but pretty much what you can find as among the definition of "dog whistle (politics)"

In politics, a dog whistle is the use of coded or suggestive language in political messaging to garner support from a particular group without provoking opposition. The concept is named after ultrasonic dog whistles, which are audible to dogs but not humans. Dog whistles use language that appears normal to the majority but communicates specific things to intended audiences. They are generally used to convey messages on issues likely to provoke controversy without attracting negative attention. Wiki

And in terms of the example of Ron DeSantis:

If you go to the provided link, you're not going to see anything at all espousing "the opinion that schools are teaching white children to be ashamed of being white and are discriminated because of their whiteness". In fact, the word "white" doesn't appear anywhere in the press release at all. But the humans have identified the "dog whistle", so it must be true here, right?

Well he doesn't outright state that, that wouldn't be a dog whistle, but you could actually read that between the lines. For example in this handout that is mentioned in the linked material. He's listing what will not be included in Florida's education:

  • Members of one race, color, national origin, or sex are morally superior
  • A person, by virtue of his or her race, color, national origin, or sex is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive.
  • A person's moral character or status as either privileged or oppressed is necessarily determined by his or her race, color, national origin, or sex.
  • Such virtues as merit, excellence, hard work, fairness, neutrality, objectivity, and racial colorblindness are racist or sexist.

Which sounds oddly specific and like too much information. Like who exactly else complained about claiming "moral superiority" based on race? But especially point 3 is heavily dubious in that the word "necessarily dependent" does a lot of heavy lifting there. Because if you phrased that any less certain you would be able to object that there are actually statistically significant difference in status and privilege that correspond with race, color, origin and/or sex. So that statement is barely technically true and bordering "lying with the truth" in that you present a narrative that is technically true but practically misleading. Which again would be an example of a dog whistle. And point 4 is also oddly specific.

Like on their face these points offer little subject to objection. Yes concept of inherent and inherited guilt are problematic and one should judge someone's character not their race, gender, sex, origin and so on. That's a pretty obvious nothing burger which which if vigorously defended and presented as great achievement either is a scam (huge package no content) or hints at more stuff hidden behind the obvious.

One also gets a glimpse of what this aims for when looking at the testimonial section:

My kids were sent home with books that encourage them to research an anti-racism book. These benchmark textbooks are not accurate and not appropriate for public-school education

Can you imagine that my children, who are of various shades of melanin, being told that because they are of lighter skin, they are oppressors or because they are of darker skin, they are oppressed. What does that do to them mentally and emotionally? What does that do to us as a family?”

And in general he seems to focus on narratives of individuality and individualism which on it's own wouldn't raise to many concerns, but given his demands also means that he deliberately ignores patterns in society beyond the scope of the individual. By reducing racism to individual malice he can conveniently ignore the lasting effect of a segregated society and of inherited fortune and poverty as the legacy of these systems. That is not the fault of the individual and beyond some fringe examples no one is really making that claim, but it actually prompts question of equality, justice and equal opportunities. Which he also conveniently circumvents with calls for individuality and equality, not in the sense of equal opportunities but in that case in the sense of equal treatment despite different conditions or in other words no change to the status quo. Which he pretty much states explicitly in what should be illegal from there on:

A person, by virtue of their race, color, national origin or sex should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment to achieve diversity, equity or inclusion.

So it's not even that the "coded language" is some obscure cipher or whatnot, it's rather the use of technical truth and nothing burgers to hide counter arguments and open the door for abusive legislation to silence people. How bad it is in practice is something that is again harder to determine, but the vagueness of it and the insinuations made at least warrant some caution.

So much about this case study. In general though the risk of name calling dog whistles is there, but it would also be pretty obvious as a fallacy fallacy which would probably violate another rule already, right?

  • 2
    "as to why dog whistle is a pejorative while indoctrination is not." I think you miss the point. If someone asked what "dog whistle" is, then the question would be legit.
    – Shadow1024
    Jan 11, 2023 at 6:13

We should not limit the use of the term "dog whistle".

There is a long tradition of using dog whistles in politics, even though it might not have been labeled as such for more than "just" a few decades (examples can be found on the wikipedia page for instance).

And let me emphasize one example that clearly illustrates how the right have been doing this. In 1981, US Republican Party strategist (i.e. not just some random party member) Lee Atwater said the following:

You start out in 1954 by saying, "Nigger, nigger, nigger." By 1968, you can't say "nigger" – that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now, you're talking about cutting taxes. And all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me – because obviously sitting around saying, "We want to cut this", is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than "Nigger, nigger."

He is literally describing using dog whistle language instead of being openly racist!

Attributing a pejorative meaning to the phrase "dog whistle" when the context is masking over racism is not a problem, quite the oposite, pretending that dog whistle language to cover up racism is a neutral thing, "just a different way of expressing oneself" is a problem.

Just because some people do not like being called out for using dog whistle language to "hide" things that are offensive/disrespectful/morally wrong does not mean that other people should stop calling them out for doing just that or that we should stop discussing how dog whistle language is used.


I think "dog whistle" could be interpreted in a few different ways and to differing degrees here.

I'd say we should avoid the term just because of the ambiguity.

But also, I might suggest generally avoiding the term, as it should be a lot less objectionable and more constructive to stick to the facts and possibly talk about the consequences of what someone does, rather than to make claims about their intent. Intent is very hard to prove, and claims about intent is very easy to dismiss.

The different possible definitions:

  • Evil conspirators using secret phrases to communicate with other co-conspirators (as said by Shadow1024)

    Probably not that relevant to what people are actually accusing others of (at least not from what I can see).

  • Someone wanting to publicly show support for and solidarity with a group or cause while being able to maintain plausible deniability. This is something Trump has often been accused of, which tim also references in his answer.

    Rather than saying that Trump is intending to signal his support for a cause, one could comment on how people who support that cause are likely to interpret his words. If someone makes a pattern of statements that are likely to be interpreted in a particular favourable way by a particular group, that would imply a lot about that person's intent, but one doesn't have to explicitly make that connection, nor make any definitive statement about intent (see also: this paragraph).

  • Someone using intentionally misleading, poorly supported or simply false claims to gain support for their cause.

    I think "indoctrination" would definitely fit here. The left would say they're e.g. teaching children scientific fact and simply including queer people in sex ed that children are already receiving. If that's true, then calling that "indoctrination" would be greatly misleading.

    This is somewhat complicated, because "indoctrination" is already making claims about intent: it's suggesting one is (usually knowingly) teaching children false things. So rather than just saying this is a "dog whistle", and implicitly asserting that they're intentionally making false or misleading claims about intent, one might reasonable say these claims aren't backed up by any evidence, and argue why it's false.

  • 1
    Avoiding the term is great but what does that mean for posts that still use it?
    – Joe W
    Jan 11, 2023 at 14:19
  • 1
    @JoeW If the community agrees strongly enough with avoiding the term, that suggests that it would be de facto "banned" from posts and we'd treat answers that contain it like other banned content: downvote, edit it out, delete the answer, add a mod note, that sort of thing. (As for existing posts, "dog whistle" only appears in 27 posts, many of which are answers to the same few questions, so I wouldn't say how we handle those, if we do anything with them, is too impactful of a decision.)
    – NotThatGuy
    Jan 11, 2023 at 14:32
  • That is something that should be in your answer, as it stands avoiding it would mean just asking people not to use it but that would not include editing the word out of posts.
    – Joe W
    Jan 11, 2023 at 14:41
  • 2
    "suggesting one is (usually knowingly) teaching children false things." So following your reasoning when let's say an Islamic school that teaches orphans the most fundamentalist Islam available and promises them 72 virgins if they die as martyrs, luckily is not indoctrinating anyone, as people who run it treat as great charity work and genuine believe their teachings, while all their main claims concerning afterlife are scientifically unfalsifiable.
    – Shadow1024
    Jan 11, 2023 at 16:48

Let's think what "dog whistle" mean:

It's literally claiming that some evil conspirators are using secret phrases to communicate with other co-conspirators, while the rest of society just hears some innocuously sounding phrases, right?

Moreover, when think about it, there is interesting pattern concerning detection of such phrases:

  • Ability to spot such evil phrase seems not to be distributed evenly. Right wingers are clearly unable. Centrist are also generally unable to discover it as well. While left wingers are good at spotting dog whistle, the masters who seem to find them everywhere are on the far-left.

  • The selected evil code words seem to picked according to an easy to notice pattern. Careless conspirators seem to use as key words phrases typical for right-wingers to describe phenomena that they observe on far-left and those words tend to have negative connotations in those circles.

Looks like a wild conspiracy theory, thus should be treated accordingly.

  • 1
    The thing is there are usually two groups that notice that easier. A) the group that is instructed to and supposed to notice it and B) the group that is the target of that. So if as a result of dog whistle politics, legislation is progressed or public opinions are shifting against you then you're bound to notice that correlation. However if you're unlucky your group is the only one to notice because group A) has no interest of telling the rest and if the rest didn't notice your out of luck. That's not specific to any case that's simply how this works in theory.
    – haxor789
    Jan 10, 2023 at 22:17
  • 3
    @haxor789 If you insist on trying to prove this conspiracy theory, that what you said still does not explain why such obvious code words are being used. Isn't it odd to you that conspirators are not changing their evil phrases. Moreover, in the case that you suggested, how are you going to distinguish grand conspiracy from mundane presenting new legislation in mixture of words that sound positive and those politician indeed use in their circles?
    – Shadow1024
    Jan 11, 2023 at 6:11
  • 3
    "Right wingers are clearly unable" - If you agree with someone, you're much more likely to interpret what they say positively and dismiss more questionable things. If you disagree, you're much more likely to interpret it negatively and notice questionable things. Do you disagree with that? Note that I didn't say if you disagree you're more likely to interpret it correctly - it may indeed be that sometimes people who disagree read too much into things, but it may also be that sometimes people who agree read too little into things. Your black-and-white thinking doesn't reflect reality.
    – NotThatGuy
    Jan 11, 2023 at 9:03
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    People on the right detect similar "patterns" ALL THE TIME. The very Q&A in question is filled with the right jumping to all sorts of conclusions about what the left says and does (that they think women should be paid more, black people deserve more rights, white people should feel shame, etc.). It's very hypocritical to suggest that only the left do this, and this also dismisses all the evidence that people present for saying what they do (however much like a wild conspiracy theory something might sound, it is rational to believe it if there's sufficient evidence to back it up).
    – NotThatGuy
    Jan 11, 2023 at 9:09

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