The less blatant, the more dangerous?

Jennifer M Saul, Dogwhistles and Figleaves: How manipulative language spreads racism and falsehoods, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2024, pp. xi and 215.

Reviewed by Mike Makin-Waite

Our times, unfortunately, require us to understand the techniques and processes by which political leaders encourage and mobilise racist sentiments so as to build their support and divert us from understanding the real causes of a range of challenging issues.

Some – Trump included – have made blatantly racist statements (though we should in fairness note that Trump assures us that he is ‘the least racist person there is anywhere in the world’). Others who promote divisive and nativist themes – even where they are members of formerly marginal far-right formations that have now come into the mainstream – take care to insist that their views are not, in fact, racist: instead, they claim to be merely standing up for majorities who have been ‘left behind’ by economic developments, and who feel anxious about aspects of social change resulting from immigration.

How have we come to this? How have previously unacceptable expressions of racism become ordinary and familiar? The problem is linked to the ways that misinformation and ‘othering’ are playing an increasingly significant role in politics. Books addressing this issue have previously been reviewed on this website, including Berinsky on how political rumours work; Colker on the increasing prevalence of put-downs, lies, ‘jokes’, and abusive tirades in public discourse; Tucher on the history of ‘fake news’; and Cassam on the ‘vices of the mind’ which we are all prone to, but which are encouraged and cynically exploited by right-wing populists.

Jennifer Saul’s new book is a welcome addition to the literature on the malign workings of contemporary political discourse (a literature which, at the same time as valuing thoughtful contributions, we wish was not needed). Shocked and horrified by Trump’s ‘obvious lies’ and ‘the stunning spread of Qanon’ and other conspiracy theories, she explores the parallels and connections between ‘the spread of explicit racism and blatant falsehood’.

Saul focuses on the rhetorical devices which nativist populists use to engage and persuade people who would not consider themselves ‘blatant racists’, and who are in fact – at least in the first instance – disconcerted by the likes of Trump. She details forms of manipulative language which enable ‘members of this group to convince themselves that deeply held norms against racism and untruthfulness are not being violated, don’t apply, or are not so important in this instance’. This is part of her examination of ‘the ways that divisions between groups are exploited (and enhanced) by public speech’.

One of these devices is the ‘figleaf’. Saul calls this ‘a bit of speech that provides cover for what might otherwise be easily recognised as racist’. Figleaves are ‘devices which allow for a shifting of norms, by making (some of) the audience think that maybe this racist-sounding utterance isn’t so racist after all’.

She notes how the use of figleaves in the ‘careful phrasing’ of a racist appeal ‘induces the persuadable group to go along with it, or at least to be uncertain about opposing it’. Because ‘the racism is at least somewhat disguised’, a further problem is generated when anti-racists who can see the appeal’s true nature call it out: some of those who have heard the appeal ‘will see the reaction against it as inappropriately judgemental’. This problem, of anti-racists finding that they have fallen into a trap and that their statements of opposition to racism are playing into the racists’ hands, is a most difficult one to address – but it has certainly been part of the dynamics of polarisation that we have seen in many countries.

Saul’s systematic detailing of different kinds of figleaves is a model of precise critique. Examples she discusses include ‘it’s just a joke’ and ‘a lot of people are saying’, this being ‘a wonderfully useful figleaf … to insist that one is merely reporting what others have said’ (she cites Enoch Powell as someone who used this technique, for example in his 1968 ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech).

‘Dogwhistles’ are signals which ‘land’ with those who are intended to make sense of them, but which take coded forms so that the signaller can plausibly deny that they have sent a racist or divisive message. They are ‘a kind of coded utterance which transmits a message to a select group that would be unacceptable to the broader audience’. Saul distinguishes between two different kinds of racist dogwhistles: the first are ‘overt code’ ones which are ‘designed to be understood by one group … and not recognised by others’. She gives the example of white supremacists using ‘88’ to mean ‘Heil Hitler’: those not ‘in the know’ will miss the reference (as will the internet’s inadequate hate speech filters). Another example is the phrase ‘states rights’, which might appear to be a straightforward confirmation of the constitutional right that states in the USA have to set their own laws on certain matters, but which can be given particular resonant meaning because of its having been the ‘rallying cry of southern states in the Civil War, which insisted that they should be allowed to continue with the practice of slavery’.

‘Covert effect’ dogwhistles, by contrast, work ‘by raising attitudes to salience outside of consciousness’. They connect to and animate divisive racial attitudes – and they can be communicated in ways which are either intentional or unintentional. One of Saul’s examples is the advert promoted in 2016 by supporters of Brexit which made the (entirely false) claim that Turkey was imminently poised to join the European Union.

The complex nature of debates about whether something is or is not a dogwhistle (covert effect) is carefully illustrated by Saul’s dissection of a 2020 dispute about whether Steven Pinker’s use of the phrases ‘urban crime / violence’ came into this category. Saul notes that variables that need to be considered in such debates include the subjective intentions of those who make the statement; context; and how the statement is received.

An important consideration raised by Saul’s book is whether the more subtle figleaves and the most covert dogwhistles might be more dangerous than the explicitly racist statement or divisive incitement. She highlights studies which show ‘how racist, sexist and oppressive norms may be introduced or perpetuated through processes of conversational accommodation … if somebody makes a racist or sexist comment, and nobody objects, the other conversational participants will make whatever racist or sexist assumptions are necessary to make sense of that conversational contribution’. Though they don’t doesn’t fully describe how ‘standards’ shift in all circumstances, such studies provide helpful insights into the insidious processes which have contributed to changing norms.

The second half of Saul’s book looks at the problem of ‘wildly implausible conspiracy theories’, again using the starting points of the ‘small communicative devices’ of figleaves and dogwhistles to explore what is happening, and why. She is clear that ‘there have been some extremely important recent changes, and these have led to manifest falsehoods gaining a currency and social acceptability in our political culture that does represent a large change from the past’. Nevertheless, she states, these developments ‘do not amount to the death of truth’: nor is ours ‘a post-truth era’, however ‘epistemically polluted’ our culture has become, making ‘successful individual cognition much more difficult than it otherwise would be’.

If I have one criticism of Saul’s stimulating book, it is that there is a certain one-sidedness in it. She is surely correct to identify the problems she is describing as coming mostly from the political right: there are plenty of Trumpisms amongst her examples, and she sets the scene for a section on Boris Johnson with helpful and precise academic distinctions between the categories of ‘bald-faced liar’; ‘bullshitter’; and ‘bald-faced bullshitter’.

But her arguments would have benefitted from greater recognition of the way that some left-of-centre leaders of the 1990s and early 2000s at least paved the way for the more extensive degradation of political discourse we have seen since. Clinton’s misleading statements over his relationship with Monica Lewinsky are covered. But I was surprised to find no mention of Tony Blair’s promotion of claims about ‘weapons of mass destruction’ in the Chapter Four discussion of George W Bush’s preparation for war with Iraq (Saul taught at Sheffield University in the UK at the time of the war).

Fuller and reflexive consideration of the ways that some people who espouse what they regard as progressive causes are sometimes seen as using ‘figleaves’ and ‘dogwhistles’ that suit their ends would have added a valuable dimension to the book. Such consideration could have allowed an exploration of the significant fact that – and of the reasons why – some of those accused of using such misleading and manipulative devices are, sometimes, genuinely horrified and mystified as to why they are being so accused. One example which might provide a starting point for such exploration, and which has become a current issue only since Saul finished writing this book, is the way that some of the chants and slogans used by those who have attended demonstrations calling for a ceasefire in respect of the ongoing bombardment of Gaza are understood and felt by some to be anti-Semitic ‘dogwhistles’. ‘From the River to the Sea, Palestine Will Be Free’ may be sincerely intended by those who promote it as a declaration of support for Palestinian self-determination which is consistent with the possibility of a new polity which meets the needs and interests both of those Jews who are currently Israeli citizens and the Palestinians who are today in Gaza, the West Bank and the Palestinian diaspora, i.e., a democratic secular state in the area for all Jews and Palestinians. It is, however, heard by many Jewish people as a chilling statement of exclusionary if not murderous intent, a dogwhistle which is an apparently positive declaration in support of oppressed Palestinian people, but which only confirms Jewish peoples’ sense of existential threat.

Saul plans further work on how aspects of discourse serve to define, exploit and strengthen social divisions, so as to contribute to fighting racism and misinformation. This reviewer looks forward to her extending and developing the insights and analysis she presents in Dogwhistles and Figleaves.

Published February 2024.