The Anti-Defamation League this week added the OK hand symbol, in which thumb and forefinger form a circle while the remaining digits are outstretched, to its database of slogans and symbols used by extremists. As CNN reported, the ADL has now decided that the gesture, one of the most common, innocuous, and universal in the world, is a symbol of hate. Not only is this designation absurd, it has the potential to be dangerous.
In its report on the OK symbol, the ADL acknowledges that its association with white supremacy began on 4chan as a joke or troll. The purpose, argues the ADL, was to take an innocent gesture and imbue it with a hateful meaning in order to trick liberals and the media into calling people racists for using it and thereby make themselves look ridiculous. This, of course, is precisely what liberals and the media did.
As a graphic at the top of the ADL report illustrates, this joke usage of the symbol jested that the three extended fingers represent a “W” for white, while the circle created by the remaining fingers along with the wrist represent a “P” for power. What the report describes happening in the two years or so since the troll, is that some white nationalists have come to use the symbol without irony, as an actual expression of hateful beliefs.
While it is true that in a very few cases actual white supremacists have used the symbol to express actual white supremacy, the much bigger result of the symbol’s supposed new meaning has been absurd allegations of racism against innocent people.
Jumping to Conclusions
One famous example came during the confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh. His former clerk, Zina Bash was photographed sitting behind the now-Supreme Court Justice, arms folded, her right hand apparently in some variation of the gesture. Twitter exploded with allegations, completely unfounded, that she was offering her support to white supremacy.
Vox picked up the story to debunk it, and in its reporting, Mark Pitcavage, an anti-extremist expert with the same ADL that released this week’s report, had this to say, “No one should assume anything about the use of such a gesture unless there are other unmistakable white supremacist signifiers in that context as well.”
He went on to say in a tweet, with a little snark thrown in, “Out of all the things you should be legitimately concerned about regarding the Senate confirmation hearings in Washington, DC, today for Judge Kavanaugh … handshakes and handsigns ought not be among them. Actual serious constitutional issues are at stake.”
So, to recap here, just over a year ago, the ADL was brushing aside allegations of the OK symbol being racist, and now they have added it to a database of official hate symbols. Now, to be fair, the report urges caution in interpreting the symbol. Compare Pitcavage’s standard that nobody should assume anything without other unmistakable white supremacist signifiers in the context to this statement at the end of the new report.
Because of the traditional meaning of the “okay” hand gesture, as well as other usages unrelated to white supremacy, particular care must be taken not to jump to conclusions about the intent behind someone who has used the gesture.
Ceding Symbols to Hate Groups
The ADL went from do not assume it’s a hate symbol with unmistakable evidence, to take care when you make your baseless allegations against people using one of the most common gestures in the world.
It is certainly true that once-innocuous symbols can be co-opted by hate groups. The most famous example likely being the swastika, a common symbol in the ancient world that the Nazis made their sign. But the vital difference is that the Nazis amassed so much power that their usage became the dominant usage. This is nowhere near the case with the OK symbol.
What makes this decision by the ADL dangerous — this slip from don’t make assumptions about the OK sign, to be careful when making assumptions about the OK sign — is its potential to smear innocent people. Presumably, the ADL database exists as a tool to help identify extremists and those promoting hate. This is a deeply irresponsible symbol to add to that list.
Should school counselors be on the lookout for this symbol? Should photos of prominent people using it go viral amid mindless speculation of motive? Should the symbol’s use be a part of red-flag laws? Because these seem like the almost inevitable repercussions of ceding this symbol to extremists.
If a handful of white nationalists use the OK hand sign to troll the media, who cares? Are we really going to give them the power to destroy a sign that has been used for hundreds of years and which is used presumably millions of times a day with no harmful intent? Obviously we should not, and the ADL should remove it from their database, OK? OK.