A Universal Studios Orlando character actor was recently fired for sneaking the OK sign into a photo with biracial children. That sentence makes sense to some readers, but most of you are understandably thinking, "Wait, what? Despicable Me 4 sounds like it's really going off the rails." So here's what's going on.
We'll start in 2017, when some 4chan users took a quick break from posting anime porn to attempt a hoax. They would spam social media with claims that the OK sign had become a symbol of white supremacy. They hoped this would lead to media outlets reporting that "fact," so they could turn around and reveal that they'd invented it. It's the rhetorical equivalent of screaming "LOL, owned!" to the firefighters who show up to your house after you falsely report a blaze. The initial effort sputtered to a halt, and the hoax was outpaced by an unrelated Facebook hoax about teens using the OK sign to set up drug deals. (Facebook being 4chan for grandparents, minus the anime porn ... we think. We don't read your Nana's messages.)
A variety of similar efforts, like trying to trick those dumb libs into thinking that clapping is now anti-feminist, also fizzled out. Tips like "Use the hashtag #PowerHandPrivilege" and "Make fake accounts with basic white girl names and type crap like: OMG that's so truuuu" aren't going to trick anyone capable of rubbing a few stray brain cells together. But like a bad horror movie villain, the OK sign rattled back to life. Since no one was buying into a dumb effort to associate an innocent gesture with white supremacy, the strategy shifted to having actual bigots use it, which would then trick people into ... seeing bigots publicly identify themselves. Again, logic is not their strong point here.
And so a Coast Guard member got in trouble for making the sign in the background of a newscast, a Chicago Cubs fan was banned from Wrigley Field for using it behind a black reporter, and Marie Le Pen used it when visiting a member of Estonia's far-right EKRE party (their leader is currently the country's finance minister, and his stance on immigration is "If you're black, go back"). These and other incidents did get media coverage, to which the alt-right's response was "LMAO, the media was triggered by this innocent gesture that we're strategically making an ironic solidarity sign for people who think whites are the superior race? They will find anything offensive!" Then the Christchurch mosque shooter used it during his arraignment. But, you know, maybe he released a manifesto that called for ethnic cleansing before murdering 51 people ironically.
Mark Mitchell-Pool/Getty Images
Despite what might get semi-coherently screamed at you on Twitter, no one is saying that the OK sign is now solely a symbol of white supremacy. It remains, in the overwhelming majority of cases, completely innocent. Hell, it's currently being used on this website in an ad for an online tutoring service. It's just that context matters, and the garbage "Sensitive much, snowflakes?" tactic isn't new.
The playbook is to A) appropriate a popular symbol or idea, and then B) use it as a cloak of plausible deniability. ("If we're so abhorrent, why do we use such mundane language and imagery?") It's worked for centuries. Nazis, at the risk of being quoted out of context, are the gold standard here. The swastika was an eastern religious symbol that had become a trendy good luck icon in the West. It was used in weddings and churches, on books and hockey jerseys, by businesses and air forces. The Nazis linking it to Aryan superiority was like if neo-Nazis made "Live, Love, Laugh" their slogan.
Oh, and the virulent antisemitism they're kinda famous for nowadays? Don't worry, stated a regrettable 1922 New York Times article. Those were ideas Hitler clearly wasn't going to follow up on. He didn't actually mean all that. Yeah, as awful as modern politics can seem, remember that "Folks, don't you just hate how the Jews are responsible for all of the world's woes?" used to be seen as equal to "Folks, don't you just hate taxes?" Who would be overly sensitive enough to believe that the Nazis were actually serious about ideas that they wrote about, encouraged their followers to hold, and publicly shouted at every possible opportunity?
The KKK used the same trick. When asked to explain the group to Congress in 1871, a Georgian representative said, "Sometimes mischievous boys who want to have some fun go on a masquerading frolic to scare the Negroes, but they do not interrupt them, do not hurt them in any way." It was just harmless trolling, right up until they facilitated over 4,700 lynchings. Of course, at that point, they could stop pretending they were a bunch of wacky goofballs, because body parts of victims were being presented to governors as trophies, and perpetrators got to sit on their own juries.
For bonus points, groups come up with their own little dictionary so they can mock outsiders for not understanding them. The alt-right has a lexicon of euphemisms and in-jokes so they can dodge keyword filters, quibble over technicalities, and claim they're just trying to shock the normies when they "joke" about, say, shooting up Mosques. (This is dubbed "edgy," which is what people who couldn't tell an actual joke to save their lives call themselves.)
Again, the point is look as innocuous as possible, then ridicule critics for reacting to something that appears innocent, not keeping up with how the in-jokes have evolved, or for occasionally failing to parse context. ("Can you believe they're worried about people using a bear emoji, which is used by regular people in normal contexts ... and coincidentally by fans of a prominent Holocaust denier who says Jews will destroy civilization and that trans people were created by a United Nations eugenics program?")
Once again, none of this is new. Go back to the 1850s, when the Know Nothings were running secret societies with passwords and hand signals, denying that they had any ulterior motives (hence their name), and claiming they were just concerned about the economy, all while encouraging violence and peddling conspiracy theories. Some of their stances were different (as a sign of how idiotic fearmongering about immigrants tends to look in retrospect, it's difficult to imagine anyone today insisting that America needs to be purged of the Irish, Germans, and worst of all, those nefarious globalist Catholics), but the idea was the same. It's all about hiding in plain sight.
This level of denial can quickly become absurd. In 2016, neo-Nazi Richard Spencer claimed that he and his fans had done the Nazi salute "in fun" and "in a spirit of irony and exuberance," then alluded to Goebbels' "lying press" terminology when anyone dared to suggest that maybe he wasn't being 100% honest. This is the "How dare you rudely call us neo-Nazis? We just use Nazi imagery to share our beliefs that the violent establishment of a white enthostate is essential to prevent the superior Aryan race from being overrun by dumb foreigners taking orders from their Jewish masters, and you're trying to censor us for that!" defense. Note that they will demand to be civilly identified by their preferred terms, then turn around and mock, say, trans people for asking the same.
If this is irony, then it puts the eyerolling-est of hipster music festivals to shame.
More recently, former Trump advisor Sebastian Gorka wore a Hungarian medal associated with an order of Nazi collaborators which was founded by a man who proudly said, "I have always been an antisemite throughout my life," but claimed he only did so to "remind myself of where I came from." Which is ... a country where he worked with antisemitic militias.
Vice co-founder and far-right greaseball Gavin McInnes has also been busting out the "I'm only joking when I call Asians slurs, defend Holocaust denial, and call trans people 'stupid lunatics.' Learn to lighten up a little and understand my hilarious satire!" line. This is a man who says that white nationalists don't exist, but also that all Muslims are "mentally damaged inbreds" determined to drive white people to extinction. He denies inciting violence while also saying "I want punching in the face." He wants to be taken seriously as an intellectual while calling his group "Proud Boys," like they finally went potty on their own for the first time. Again, he demands to be treated with nothing but the utmost respect, then hops on his podcast to call anyone who even gently criticizes him "fucking r****ds."
Even PewDiePie wore a shirt with what appeared to be an Iron Cross on it when announcing that he was cancelling a donation to the Anti-Defamation League after some of his fans got uppity about it. Those same fans, and Mr. Pie himself, argued that it technically wasn't the Iron Cross, but instead a totally different symbol which looks identical, and which he chose to wear at that particular moment for absolutely no particular reason whatsoever. This is the same Rhodes Scholar who, among other flirtations with antisemitism, paid people to display a "Death to all Jews" sign, then acted shocked when people didn't laugh at his wacky joke.
So is he a neo-Nazi, or just an idiot? Does the distinction even matter when he's getting praised by The Daily Stormer? There's a reason "idiot" is sometimes prefaced with "useful." And to bring us full circle, some of PewDiePie's fans used the "LOL, why are you so upset about a gamer telling jokes?" defense. That's what it always comes back to, the insistence that their hatred and anger is merely ironic, right up until they are drowning you in it.
This playbook will always exist, and it will always be obnoxious. But it exists because once you strip away the irony and trickery, the ideas of people who need to use it are intellectually barren. The good news is that, with practice, these liars become easy to spot. Just remember that whenever someone insists you can ignore them because they're only joking. The biggest joke is that they expect to be believed.
For more, check out Even Elton John Hated The New 'Lion King' and Disney Sure Is Proud Of All The Crazy Sh*t They've Made.
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