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Column: A thumbs-down for the culture war on hand gestures
Shannon Casas high res
Shannon Casas

I’ve had children raise their middle finger to me on more than one occasion.

A toddler who got a boo-boo on that finger held it up to show me.

A child pointed at something with his middle finger instead of his pointer finger. Apparently we needed to sing more of “Where is Thumbkin?” so he knows which one is Pointer.

Of course these hand gestures were innocent. But if a child innocently raises a middle finger in public, most parents would be pretty quick to correct.

Ideas can be quickly expressed with simple hand gestures.

And it seems the meaning of those hand gestures can also quickly change.

The OK hand gesture is no longer A-OK.

The gesture was pushed by internet trolls as a supposed symbol of white power, with the three upheld fingers representing a W and the circle formed by the meeting of pointer and thumb a P. 

Though the symbol’s new meaning started as a hoax, according to the Anti-Defamation League, certain groups began using the symbol so frequently that it is now listed as a hate symbol by the league.

The league notes that the gesture’s traditional meaning is still widespread, so people shouldn’t assume anyone using it is pushing a white power agenda. 

But now athletes, politicians and officers of various stripes have been called out for using the gesture.

Cadets flashed the gesture last month during the Army-Navy football game. The U.S. Military Academy investigated and determined the cadets were playing a game, not pushing a white power agenda.

Many on the left were quick to judge the cadets. And the whole thing served as just another excuse for those on the left and right to point fingers at each other while the trolls laugh.

The many left in the middle may be wondering if they should just shove their hands in their pockets — or raise a certain finger against the far right or far left for stealing what was a perfectly benign gesture.

But who decides what our gestures mean? Must we abandon the OK gesture? What if the trolls come for the thumbs-up next?

That’s a widely used gesture, especially in the age of Facebook where it has come to mean “like” just as much as “good job” or “yes.”

“Time” magazine reports it’s unclear where Americans’ use of the thumbs-up originated, but it had some other meanings along the way, beginning in ancient Rome where a thumbs-up may have been a kill signal.

That’s certainly not what I mean when I hit the thumbs-up in Slack when a reporter messages me about his latest story. And if I send the OK symbol in Slack, all I mean is OK.

Symbols and language have changed due to platforms like Slack or Facebook or text messaging and how people use them. 

There’s a host of evolving meanings for emojis.

The emojipedia tells me the frog emoji also is associated with the alt-right. Or, if you pair it with a coffee mug it will “represent the But That’s None of My Business meme (used for gossip or sarcasm).” Or it could just be a frog. Drinking coffee.

I’d like to insert the woman shrugging shoulders emoji here. The emojipedia states that the shrugging person means just what you think it means.

These symbols can help us communicate in a digital landscape where the nuance of facial expression and body language is absent.

And hand gestures help us communicate in spaces like a rowdy arena in ancient Rome or a football stadium in Anywhere USA.

We assign meaning. The meaning evolves. And, in any case, the context and intent is important. Now you can give this column a thumbs-up, a thumbs-down or a shrug.

Shannon Casas is editor in chief of The Times and a foster parent. You can hear her most weeks on the Inside The Times podcast on iTunes or Google Play.

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