Dog whistles, covertly coded speech, and the practices that enable them

Synthese 200 (4):1-34 (2022)
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Dog whistling—speech that seems ordinary but sends a hidden, often derogatory message to a subset of the audience—is troubling not just for our political ideals, but also for our theories of communication. On the one hand, it seems possible to dog whistle unintentionally, merely by uttering certain expressions. On the other hand, the intention is typically assumed or even inferred from the act, and perhaps for good reason, for dog whistles seem misleading by design, not just by chance. In this paper, I argue that, to understand when and why it’s possible to dog-whistle unintentionally (and indeed, intentionally), we’ll need to recognize the structure of our linguistic practices. For dog whistles and for covertly coded speech more generally, this structure is a pair of practices, one shared by all competent speakers and the other known only to some, but deployable in the same contexts. In trying to identify these enabling conditions, we’ll discover what existing theories of communicated content overlook by focusing on particular utterances in isolation, or on individual speakers’ mental states. The remedy, I argue, lies in attending to the ways in which what is said is shaped by the temporally extended, socio-politically structured linguistic practices that utterances instantiate.
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Archival date: 2022-08-03
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