False dog whistles

When saying what you mean is not enough

Lately I have been thinking a lot about why it is so difficult to disagree with certain progressive ideas—you disagree on one point, and this is interpreted to mean that you must hold an opinion you do not have. For instance, if you suppose that the earnings gap cannot exclusively be attributed to discrimination, you must hold the opinion that women are inherently worse performers in the workforce. I find this line of reasoning incredibly frustrating. Saying what you mean is not sufficient; you also have to constantly pre-emptively declare the things you do not mean, which really takes away from what you are trying to say.

The best example I can find of this is an interview of Jordan Peterson by Cathy Newman on various topics relating to gender, where the interviewer repeatedly puts words in Peterson’s mouth. This article by The Atlantic gives a good, in-depth analysis of the interview. Alternatively, this video is a good montage of every instance of this happening. It is maddening to listen to. Specifically, it is not necessarily the putting of words in Peterson’s mouth that is maddening; that could easily be attributed to ignorance. Rather, it is the interviewer’s complete unwillingness to for a moment entertain the thought that her interviewee is not a sexist, or to believe him when he says he is not. It almost reeks of a kafkatrap—the mere (and repeated) accusation of being a sexist makes the interviewee irreversibly suspect.

In writing this article, the same might apply to me. I appear to side with Jordan Peterson, who has a host of opinions, and who is accused of having a host of opinions he does not hold. Therefore, I might be considered guilty by association—if I side with Peterson in this instance, then that must mean that I always agree with him, or that I must share a political leaning with him, or that I care about the same subjects he does. And by not disavowing Peterson, that might mean that I do not disagree with his more objectionable views. To protest having to defend against such baseless accusations, I won’t confirm or deny any of those things. I merely used his interview as an example.

I did not have a name to refer to this phenomenon for the longest time. I believe I finally have a word for this, though, and a weak explanation for why this might be happening. It occurred to me that the concept of interpreting something that is not being said is very similar to dog whistles. For instance, a conservative might say that they care immensely about family values. To the layman, this does not sound objectionable. Someone in the know, however, may (correctly) interpret this as meaning that they oppose gay parents adopting children. Here, “family values” serves as a cryptic message for anti-gay politics.

People have started catching on to these dog whistles, though. And it is my interpretation that people have begun hearing dog whistles that were not intentional. When someone says that the earnings gap cannot be exclusively attributed to discrimination, a progressive might hear a dog whistle that says “women are inferior”. And perhaps they are not wrong. Perhaps sexists do extract this from that statement. But one way or another, that is not what is being said, nor the intended message.

These false dog whistles are especially troublesome when discussing statistical observations. For instance, one might observe that aggression occurs more prominently in men. You can phrase this as “men are more aggressive” or “women are more passive”, but it is incredibly easy for someone to interpret this as a blanket statement: Every man is aggressive and every woman is passive, which is how it always was, is, will be, and should be. This is sexism of the highest order, of course, but not what is being said. What is being said is that aggression occurs more often and/or more strongly in biological men when measured as a collective, which is a bit of a mouthful to say. This statement does not mean that aggressive women do not exist, that women should be passive, or that this observation is in any way desirable or “just”. It is just that—an observation.

One important thing to note is that these false dog whistles aren’t merely straw man arguments, though they are similar. They are primarily an interpretation problem, not a debating problem. They are conclusions about your stance based on something tangential or even unrelated that you have said. It’s the cargo cult of opinions: Adopt one opinion of a political ideology, and you have adopted all of them. This goes both ways, and makes it difficult to have any sort of nuanced opinion.

The solution to these false dog whistles, I do not know. Short of pre-emptively pointing out what you do not mean or consistently defending yourself against straw man arguments, I haven’t found a satisfying solution. One absolute requirement, however, is speaking precisely and specifically to avoid actually saying the thing you did not intend. Nuance is difficult.