The symbolic interactionist theory, in sociology, contends that people make sense of their world through the exchange of meaning through language and symbols. We interact with things based on meanings ascribed to those things. Unfortunately, nefarious groups have sought to change the intended meanings behind symbols they fancy, and recently they have claimed some victories.
36 new entries have been added to the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) online database of hate symbols. Most of the new entries have been adopted by the burgeoning alt-right movement, which has been emboldened since they’ve helped elect our 45th president.
Like radiation, racists seem to contaminate everything they touch. Even so, there is a way to stop them: we can just as easily steal the symbols back, without encroaching on our free speech rights.
Some choices to the list are dubious, but not worth salvaging. White supremacist and mass murderer Dylann Roof, the gunman responsible the Charleston church shooting, helped add bowl cuts to the list if they were ever in danger of becoming popular after the fifteenth century. The average internet user has to really tumble down the rabbit hole to understand and recognize the meme references, and sometimes it’s better to just never sate that curiosity and leave them to obscurity.
A good portion of these symbols, however, were not authored by white supremacists. Just a decade ago the “OK” sign was an innocuous gesture meant to convey agreement or alerting someone that the person is alright; now it seems every week some idiotic racist gets righteously fired for flashing it in a photo and having it broadcasted on social media. Not too long ago, there were heated debates on whether or not a sign-using individual was a secret white supremacist or using the sign as originally intended, but its addition to the ADL’s list will now leave little doubt in the minds of those inclined to think the worst. We’ve let them have it.
With rampant media coverage giving the racists the attention they so clearly crave, it is difficult to see how we can stop them from co-opting the use of any symbol they choose to like.
This isn’t a new phenomenon. The swastika was a geometrical religious icon for ancient Indian religions – a symbol meaning “well-being” and denoting good luck – until Hitler showed up and stole it. The celtic cross was just a stylized version of the Christian cross meant to symbolize Irish pride, but according to the ADL it’s now “one of the most common white supremacist symbols”.
It has also been done in reverse. The pink triangle was used in Nazi concentration camps to identify homosexual men, bisexual men and transgender women, but in the 1970’s it was revived by gay liberation advocates as an empowering symbol of self-identity. Just as neo-nazis have stolen symbols sported by those with good intent, their victims have stolen symbols once used by their oppressors to fight back.
It may take some time to strip it away, but what power we imbue these symbols with is ultimately up to us. Try as they might, we don’t need to let racists ruin everything.