Interpretations of political dog whistles and the factors involved

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Title: Interpretations of political dog whistles and the factors involved
Author: Gill, Sukhnavdeep
Other contributor: Helsingin yliopisto, Humanistinen tiedekunta
University of Helsinki, Faculty of Arts
Helsingfors universitet, Humanistiska fakulteten
Publisher: Helsingin yliopisto
Date: 2021
Language: eng
Thesis level: master's thesis
Degree program: Englannin kielen ja kirjallisuuden maisteriohjelma
Master's Programme in English Studies
Magisterprogrammet i engelska språket och litteraturen
Specialisation: ei opintosuuntaa
no specialization
ingen studieinriktning
Abstract: The thesis studies political dog whistles, coded messages outside the political mainstream demonstrating racism, xenophobia, and issues under the guise of mainstream ideas and plausible deniability. The socially consequential relevance of dog whistles is highlighted as ideologies can thus be represented in governments without the people’s knowledge. The goal was to study the interpretations of alleged dog whistles through a survey. The main questions are: How do the results differ from one another, what factors influence the interpretations, and what do the results tell us about their role in modern-day politics? Two main frameworks are used in the research. Allan Bell’s concept of audience design shows how the messages are constructed and who are they aimed at. Audience roles are used to further break down this process. Michael Silverstein’s concept of indexicality is also used to break down the ideas evoked in the messages and to see what aspects are focused on. The history of dog whistle politics and its status in the modern political climate is also included. The survey featured ten quotes accused of being dog whistles and two distractors that have not been accused. The participants offered their interpretations of each quote. The participants were also asked questions regarding their age, gender, education, political leaning, political involvement, source for news, and familiarity with the term itself, the purpose being to see if these factors influence the interpretations. There was a total of 54 responses and all the respondents were students from the University of Helsinki. The respondents that found a quote to be a dog whistle, did so for various reasons, indexing different elements of the quote. The respondents that disagreed with the quotes being dog whistles, explained that they saw nothing wrong with the message and interpreted it as a regular political message. There were also interpretations which saw some quotes as being too blunt in its message of xenophobia/racism to be considered a dog whistle or examples where the political message was seen as too broad or vague, thus exhibiting any potential meaning. Uncertainty was also a recurring element as many respondents were unable to designate a quote confidently. A recurring element in the “no” answers was to not index the source of the accusations and to instead focus on other parts of the message. The roles of “auditors” and “overhearers” play an important part within dog whistles as they are used to break down the differences in the designs of the examples included. The thesis also highlights the role of plausible deniability which is central to dog whistle politics. This brings forward the importance of a regular and active conversation regarding dog whistles as the way to combat them. Dog whistles achieve their effect by not crossing into the “audible” range. The thesis further highlights the intricacies of this aspect as this fine line can be extremely flexible depending on the elements involved. The questions asked regarding age, gender etc. showed no significant influence on the interpretations. Ideology stood out as the only potentially significant factor, but the data was limited. The two distractors showed how influential a speaker is to the interpretations as both distractors were from the same speaker (Donald Trump) but only one mentioned this fact. The one mentioning him was more likely seen as a dog whistle. The thesis showcased the complexity of dog whistle politics as a message can be seen as having coded content of racism by one group but also as a completely regular message by another group, thus highlighting the need for an active conversation around the topic. The thesis breaks down the complex and varied design of each dog whistle included.
Subject: Dog whistle politics
audience design
audience roles
survey methods
discourse analysis

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