Publisher: Oxford University Press
Released: February 6, 2024
It is widely accepted that political discourse in recent years has become more openly racist and more accepting of wildly implausible conspiracy theories. Dogwhistles and Figleaves explores ways in which such changes—both of which defied previously settled norms of political speech—have been brought about. Jennifer Saul shows that two linguistic devices, dogwhistles and figleaves, have played a crucial role. Some dogwhistles (such as "88", used by Nazis online to mean "Heil Hitler") serve to disguise messages that would otherwise be rejected as unacceptable, allowing them to be transmitted surreptitiously. Other dogwhistles (like the 1988 "Willie Horton" ad) work by influencing people in ways that they are not aware of, and which they would likely reject were they aware. Figleaves (such as "just asking questions") take messages that could easily be recognized as unacceptable, and provide just enough cover that people become more willing to accept them. Saul argues that these devices are important for the spread of racist discourse. She also shows how they contribute to the transmission of norm-violating discourse more generally, focusing on the case of wildly implausible conspiracist speech. Together, these devices have both exploited and widened existing divisions in society, and normalized racist and conspiracist speech. This book is the first full-length exploration of dogwhistles and figleaves. It offers an illuminating and disturbing view of the workings of contemporary political discourse.