Final Word

Fifa’s dog whistles inflict a thousand cuts on reputations

Dog's whistle.jpg

If some of the explanations of how a $10 million ‘donation’ from South Africa for football development landed in private pockets are true, dog whistles might have been involved.

Based on the fact that some sounds in the high, ultrasonic range not picked up by humans are heard by dogs, Sir Francis Galton in 1876 developed Galton’s whistle. It became popularly known as a ‘dog whistle’ and to this day is used in the training of dogs.

In the late 1980s, researchers in the field of opinion polls, and more specifically political polls, have found that subtle changes in the wording of questions in such polls sometimes produced markedly different results. Clearly not all respondents gleaned the same meaning from the words used in the questions.

This discovery led to the formulation of the term ‘dog-whistle politics’ for the use of specific words in political campaigns to communicate one thing to the general public and something different to specific subgroups or ‘ingroups’.

Put differently, in her book Voting for Jesus: Christianity and Politics in Australia Amanda Lohrey writes that “the goal of the dog-whistle is to appeal to the greatest possible number of electors while alienating the smallest possible number”.

It is indeed claimed that the term originated in Australia during the mid-1990s when the then prime minister, John Howard, and his campaign managers, were accused of using words like “un-Australian”, “mainstream” and “illegals” to communicate essentially xenophobic messages targeting the fears of some white Australians.

The term is said to have migrated to the United Kingdom in 2005 when a key advisor of Howard was employed as consultant by the Conservative Party for the general election of that year.

With the term being mainly used as cover for less acceptable attitudes like xenophobia, the Zulu king was in essence recently accused of ‘dog-whistle’ politics in his references to migrants from Africa.

‘Dog-whistle’ also found its way into American politics, with derogatory concepts remaining over time by migrating from one ‘dog’s whistle’ to another.

A former Republican Party strategist, Lee Arwater, once gave the following description of the process: “You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968, you can't say ‘nigger’ — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced bussing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a by-product of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it.”

A personal confession

A political colleague and friend and I developed, what can be called a dog’s whistle to communicate to each other our feelings about a person who irritated us during the endless meetings we attended together.

We would refer to such a person as a “knee” – a knee being at least half a meter lower than that part of a female’s anatomy, for which in less than polite conversation an obscene word starting with a ‘c’ is often used.
Those in our ‘in-circle’ knew exactly what we meant, while it would go totally over the head of others who might think we were rather referring to ‘knee jerking’.

Fifa’s dog’s whistles

Some of the explanations of what seems to have happened to South Africa’s ‘donation’ to the ‘development programme’ called the “Africa Diaspora legacy” of the 2010 Football World Cup, suggests that something similarly obscene has happened in Fifa’s management circles.

While to those not in the know, the terms ‘development programme’, ‘contribution’ and ‘legacy’ sounded totally legit and acceptable, to those of the inner circle they were cover words for ‘bribery’, ‘corruption’ and ‘money laundering’.

And as the story is still unfolding, this explanation seems quite plausible, and might be the only possible escape for South Africa and some others involved or associated with Fifa. Just, maybe South Africa, its football administrators and some government functionaries were victims rather than co-conspirators.

Death by a thousand cuts

What is, however, crystal clear is that the reputation of both South Africa and Fifa has suffered from what is by another metaphor described as ‘death by a thousand cuts’, describing the process of how something catastrophic, objectionable or totally unacceptable happens by way of small, slow increments.

The metaphor was coined in reference to an ancient Chinese, extremely harsh, method of execution for crimes regarded as especially heinous, like murdering your mother.

Applied from around 900 AD until it was abolished in 1905, it consisted of inflicting cuts and severing body parts one by one over an extended period of time while the convicted person is tied to a wooden frame, usually in a public place. In Chinese it was called Lingchi.

Exactly by whom and when the metaphor was coined in the West is not known, but the use of this form of execution by the Chinese became widely known in the West after photographs of such executions were published early in the 20th century.

Fact is, that it represents somewhat of an exaggeration, since some researchers estimate that the maximum cuts that could have been inflicted before death set in, was in the order of twenty.

Be that as it may, the meaning of the metaphor, that it refers to a lot of small injuries, none of which are fatal in themselves, but add up to the demise of something or someone, is well set.

As the Fifa story unfolds, it is clear that that is what happened to the organisation, and unfortunately it happens to add another cut to the demise of South Africa’s reputation – many of the cuts, also on other fronts, having been self-inflicted.


Also read: Politics take the eye off the ball & Fifa Watch

by Piet Coetzer

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