Last spring, I watched my niece's fiance graduate from college. Standing before the camera while his name was read, he held up hand in what looked like a backwards "OK" sign.
Two thoughts flashed through my mind. 1) I knew the beautiful, heartbreaking reason why he did it. 2) People in the audience who didn't know could have made a terrible assumption about him based on that sign.
My soon-to-be-nephew had been a football player at the university. The previous year, the school's up-and-coming star quarterback, Tyler Hilinski, had taken his own life. The boys were friends, and Tyler's suicide was obviously a painful tragedy.
Tyler wore the number 3 on his jersey. That's what the three finger symbol was for—a tribute to honor a friend.
But I also knew that sign could be misconstrued. I was aware of the recent history that has now prompted the Anti-Defamation League to declare the OK sign a hate symbol. I knew that some in the audience might see this big white dude flashing what looked like an OK sign at his graduation and think he was brazenly advertising a belief in white supremacy.
Nothing could be further from the truth—the guy is justice-minded and anti-racist—but a snapshot doesn't show that.
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Therein lies the problem with the OK sign being labeled a hate symbol. At the same time, this is where we are. Because it's 2019 and nothing makes a lick of sense anymore.
The OK sign as a symbol of white supremacy started out as a joke. Apparently, some basement-dwelling 4Chan dudes with a severe lack of purpose in life decided to "troll the liberals" by making people think that the OK sign—something super commonplace and innocuous—was a symbol of white supremacy. (Seriously, people. Get a life, please.)
Then, because white supremacists are stupid, they actually started flashing it during their pity party rallies and it actually did become a symbol. The symbolism was solidified when a photo of the mosque shooter in New Zealand flashing the sign became public. One can no longer argue that a sign is a joke when someone flashes it after having committed a white supremacist massacre.
Does that mean that no one should give the OK sign anymore? Does it mean that my soon-to-be-nephew was wrong to honor his friend by flashing his jersey number? Absolutely not.
Part of the reason the 4chan jerks chose the sign was because of its ubiquity. Divers use the OK sign to indicate that they are all right. They can't use a thumbs up because that already has a different meaning. Kids have a game where they make the OK sign and if they catch someone looking at it, they get a slug in the arm. That's been going on much longer than the white supremacist symbol controversy. In basketball, when a player makes a 3-pointer, they often hold up those three fingers. Obviously, that's not a white supremacist gesture.
And then there's, you know, the American Sign Language letter "F." Clearly people are not expected to stop making these signs altogether. That would be ridiculous.
The ADL has made it clear that context matters. This becomes even more obvious when you look at what else is on the list of hate symbols. The numbers "12" and "13" and "100%," for example. People use those numbers all the time and they don't mean anything other than what they mean. Same goes for the OK sign.
Basically, we just need to be aware of how these symbols are used by hate groups. Because the internet is what it is, we should probably let our kids know about it so that they aren't blindsided if someone misconstrues an innocent hand gesture. A group of white kids should know that if they all make the OK sign in a photo, there's a possibility that people will question whether they are advertising racism and choose their actions accordingly.
Is that fair? No. Is it reality? Yes. Will people blame the "PC police" for this? Yes. But let's put the blame where it belongs—on 4chan fools and white supremacist idiots for creating this ridiculous controversy in the first place.
Seriously, man. Get. A. Life.