You all know about this: It is being said that the OK sign is used to indicated “White Power” and this use has been spotted among politicians and celebrities everywhere. Is this real? I don’t know. Is it a valid symbol for “White Power”? Certainly not.
The problem with the white power symbol is that it is not a symbol. Or, if it is a symbol, it is a baby symbol that doesn’t know how to be a symbol yet, so don’t expect much from it.
Move your hands in front of you as though you were grasping a steering wheel, and pump your right foot while you say, somewhat loudly and using a touch of Vocal Fry if you can manage it, the words “Vroom Vrooom.”
Maybe snap your head back on the second “Vroom.”
You have signified rapid acceleration, but you did not really do it using full blown language. Well, you did, because you have full blown language, and so do the other people in the room wondering what the heck you are doing (I’m hoping you are reading this in a busy coffee shop). But the fact that they get that you are talking about rapid acceleration is because you made sounds like a car and play-tended that you are sitting in a car and reacting to forward rapid acceleration. That’s not really language. From a semiotic point of view, you signified the sound of an accelerating engine by imitating it, and you signified other aspects of rapid acceleration by imitating it. This is not symbolic. You were not doing a symbolic representation of rapid acceleration. You may be thinking, “yes, I was, or what the heck was that that if I wasn’t?” Just trust me, you weren’t.
(Except that since your intentional communication is essentially linguistic even when not and everyone around you is a human, you were, but that’s another matter for another time. Functionally, you were not, pragmatically you were.)
Now, do the following. Wipe that puzzled or snarky expression off your face and speak the following words, enunciating clearly.
Unless you are in a Finnish coffee shop, when you said those words out loud you were uttering a symbol, but unfortunately, a symbol with no meaning, because no one in the room, including yourself, speaks that language (if you are a Fin or among Fins, substitute some other language, please.)
Now, say, with no body movements or other fanfare:
In an English-speaking coffee shop, that was a symbolic act. There is no onomatopoeia. There is no imitation. There is no clue to the meaning of those words built into their utterance or the framework in which they are uttered (like an accompanying gesture or facial expression). However, you have made and conveyed meaning, and done so symbolically.
The very fact that these words mean what they mean in an utterly arbitrary way, a way unembellished with direct reflection of reality, is what makes them symbolic, and the fact that language works this way is what makes language very powerful.
There are many reasons for this. For example, if your words were strictly tied to imitation or direct representation, it would be harder to extend or shift meanings. It would be harder for there to be a rapid acceleration of a political policy, or a state of war, or a child’s understanding of subtraction and addition, as well as a vehicle with a steering wheel. Also, you made this meaning using two words, each of which can be used as countless meaning making tools. There is an infinity of meanings that can be generated with the word “rapid” and a few other words, in various combinations uttered in a variety of contexts, and there is an infinity of meanings that can be generated with the word “acceleration” and a few other words, in various combinations uttered in a variety of contexts, and the two infinities are potentially non overlapping.
The warning sign above is like a lot of other signs (using the term “sign” like one might say “placard”). It has a triangle which, in this case, signifies semiotics. Why does a triangle signify semiotics? Because in one of the dominant theories of semiotics, which is the study of meaning making, symbolism, and sign making (the other kind of sign), meaning making has three parts (the meaning maker, the meaning receiver, and the other thing). But the triangle is not really a semiotic triangle because there are no labels. This could be a triangle of some other kind, linked to some other meaning. Indeed, the triangular shape is linked to warning signs generally, while the rhombus is for “stuff ahead” so this could be a sign signifying, by looking like something else (a danger sign), danger ahead, or pedestrian crossing ahead, or some other thing.
Cleverly, the warning sign above is both an index to semiotics and a reference to danger, placed on a sign shape usually used to warn of danger ahead (like a deer crossing).
Briefly, a thing that looks like a thing is an icon. Like the thing on your computer screen that looks like a floppy disk, indicating that this is where you click to put the document on the floppy disk. A thing that has a physical feature linked to a thing or meaning, but not exactly looking like it, is an index. We can arbitrarily link a representation to an index (like an index card in a library to a book, linked by the call number which appears on each item) or a representation can evolve from icon to index because of change. For example, the thing on your computer screen that looks like a floppy disk, indicating that this is where you click to put the document in the cloud, in a world with no floppy disks where most computer users don’t have a clue what a floppy disk is or was, but they do know that that particular representation will save their document.
A symbol can evolve from the index when the physicality of the link is utterly broken. The vast majority of words do not look, sound, in any way resemble, what they mean. Words are understood because the speakers and hearers already know what they mean. New meaning is not generated in the speaker and then decoded in the listener. Rather, new meaning is generated in the listener when the speaker makes sounds that cause the listener’s brain to interact with that third thing I mentioned above, which is shared by both.
And, of course, meaning can be generated in someone’s mind when all that happens inside your head. It is advised that, when doing so, try to not move your lips.
The point of all this: having a representation of something linked by the way it looks to some kind of meaning is asking for trouble. A totally arbitrary association between intended meaning and how something looks (or sounds, like a word) is impossible to understand for anyone not in on the symbolic system. But, such an arbitrary association allows, if the meaning making is done thoughtfully and there is no deficit in the process, for an unambiguous meaning making event. At the same time, the arbitrary nature of the symbol allows for subsequent “linguistic” (as in “symbolizing) manipulation of the arbitrary thing itself. And, the fact that the symbolizing requires that third thing, the common understanding of meaning, is what allows us to avoid meaning making that is spurious, as happens when a sign is not a pure symbol, but instead, iconic or indexical of something. And this is where the White Power symbol everyone is talking about, made up of the common “OK” sign, falls into the abyss.
Do this and show it to all the people in the coffee shop:
If you are in the US you may have just told everyone that all is “OK” (or is it “Okay”?).
Among SCUBA divers it specifically means “no problem” which is subtly different than just “OK” because the problems being discussed are on a specific list of important issues to SCUBA divers, like “my air is good” etc.
In the above cases, the gesture means what it means because it is making an “O” for the beginning of OK/Okay. The gesture is an icon of the term “OK.” It is not a full blown proper symbol.
If you are in Argentina or several other South American areas, and possibly parts of Europe, you may have just called everyone in the room an asshole. In this case, the gesture refers to that anatomy, and the anatomy is metaphorical for a state of mind or behavioral syndrome. The symbol itself is an icon or index to the sphincter region.
In other contexts (mainly in Europe), the symbol is also an insult in a different way, in that the “0” part of the gesture implies “you are nothing, a zero.”
In Arabic speaking cultures, the symbols sometimes refers to the evil eye, because it looks like an eye. So it is used, along with a mix of phrases, as a curse.
If you put the ring formed by the gesture over the nose, you are telling someone they are drunk, in Europe. Or, you may place the “O” near your mouth to indicate drinking.
In Japan, if the hand is facing down, that “o” shape is a coin, so it can mean money or something related.
In parts of china, while the symbol can mean “three” the zero part tends not to. To say “zero” one simply makes a closed fist.
In basketball, the “o” part of the gesture is just there to get the index finger out of the way. The key part of it is the three fingers sticking up, which means that the player who just threw the ball into the hoop got three points.
Meanwhile, among some Buddhists, the three fingers part is not the point. The circle part is where the meaning is, but not as the letter “o” but rather the number “0”. Moving across the religious spectrum a ways, in another South Asian religion, it is the three fingers symbolize the three “gunas” which you want to have in harmony, while the “o” part represents union of consciousness. But again, all of these meanings have to do with the actual physical configuration of the fingers.
Rarely, the symbol means “666” and, increasingly, is linked to the Illuminati. To the extent that the Illuminati exists, and I’m not going to confirm or deny. The symbol is also found in western Christian allegoric art. I don’t know what it means there.
There are places in this world where there are both negative and positive meanings implied by the iconic nature of the symbol, which can lead to both confusion and intended ambiguity. I worked on a crew with people who were either Argentinian or who lived in Argentina for a long time, and others who had never been to Argentina. It was always great fun to watch the boss give kudos to a worker at the same time as calling him an asshole. We need more gestures like that.
The Anti-defamation league identifies a version of the White Power symbol, where you use one hand to make a W (start with a “live long and prosper” then move the two middle fingers together) and an upside down OK to make the P. It is not clear that the ADL is convinced this is real; they may just suspect it. But generally, the symbol is found in a small cluster of mainly twiterati, who have produced a few pictures of possible or certain white supremacists or racists using the symbol. But in all cases, they may just be saying “OK” in the usual benign sense. The best case I’ve seen for the one handed WP=White Power OK symbol is its apparent use on a sign being held at a white supremacist group march, but that could be a singular case, or fake.
Since I originally wrote this post, in 2017 (this is a 2021 edit you are reading right here) I’ve noticed that actual white supremacists who want to make it clear they are using the OK White Power symbol do so vigorously or obviously in some way to reduce ambiguity. That does not make it more of a symbol, but it does make it easy to spot the assholes. Which is not what the OK sign is being used to represent, except in an ironic way it really is. But I digress….
Of course, now that the cat is out of the bag, the OK symbol IS a sign for “White Power” or could be, or at least is an ambiguous one, so anything can happen from here on out. I’m just not sure this use was there before a few days ago when Twitter invented it.
But that is not the point I wish to make here. The point is that the OK gesture sucks as a symbol in the modern globalized world because it has so many existing meanings, yet is not an arbitrary symbol. It isn’t fully linguistic. It has a hard time doing the job a symbol should do, which is to be both fully agreed on, with respect to meaning, and adaptable into novel meaning contexts without easily losing its primary symbolic, historically determined, references.
And, the reason for this is that the OK hand gesture looks like something, or more importantly, looks like a lot of things. A bottle coming to the mouth, a bottle on the nose because you are so drunk, an eye (evil or otherwise), a zero, a three, an “O” or a “P”. A coin or an asshole. Probably more.
So, yes, a “black power” gesture looks to someone in Hong Kong like a declaration of “Zero!” That sign isn’t in as much trouble as “OK” because the meaning “black power” is regional, and the use of the fist is regional. But it is another example of something indexical (a fist meaning power is very indexical, maybe even partly iconic) and thus, not truly symbolic, and thus, limited as a fully powered linguistic thing.
Don’t get me started on this one: