I know what “the circle game” is. It’s a Joni Mitchell song and an album from Tom Rush that my dad was super into; but it’s also the earliest known example of live trolling.
My brothers used to “play” it with me. It involves forming your thumb and index finger into a circle, holding the gesture below your waistline, and finding ways to make your opponent/younger brother look at it. Much like beholding the Medusa with one’s doomed eyes before they turned stony, looking at “this” (as it was usually referred to) came with a penalty — usually a knuckle-heavy charley horse delivered to the meat of the shoulder.
It’s important to note that the glancer could avert said charley horse by stabbing the circle with his own finger and successfully withdrawing it; however, if the stab attempt was caught in the grip of the circler’s hand, the penalty punch was doubled. Same shoulder.
So, once more before we continue, I know all about the circle game. No need to e-mail me when we’re done here and explain it to me, as several have on Facebook whenever discussions emerge about the nefarious semiotic drift suffered by the once-innocent gesture for “OK.”
You know the one. It’s the very one from the punching game, but it’s also the one from decades of nonverbal expressions of OK-ness. It’s a cheery, neighborly, borderline bumpkiny way to signal interpersonal affirmation, so naturally it’s been co-opted by racist trolls.
The rise and fall and rise (and fall) of the OK gesture is not a particularly exciting story, but it is a complicated one. Starting in the damp, dateless caverns of 4chan, “Operation O-KKK” was launched by an anonymous cadre of posters as a potentially powerful trolling methodology that involved simply taking the once-innocuous gesture and superimposing a (possibly?) disingenuous new meaning.
“[W]e must flood Twitter and other social media websites . . . claiming that the OK hand sign is a symbol of white supremacy,” reads the post-zero of the phenomenon. “Leftists have dug so deep down into their lunacy. We must force [them] to dig more, until the rest of society ain’t going anywhere near that [expletive].”
Since then, the gesture has curled the claws of high-profile nationalist provocaturds like Milo Yiannopolous and Richard Spencer, and has effectively spread across alt-right and alt-lite photo ops relatively unchecked for the last two years.
But all of this apparent quacking from likely ducks doesn’t (and can’t) say anything definitive about the intent behind the silent gesture. Which, of course — a thousand duhs — is by design. Coming from those now-public figures who’ve proven most fond of throwing it (and teaming it with a knowing smirk), it’s impossible to tell if the sign is sincerely sinister shorthand for white supremacy or merely a kind of douchey magic spell that triggers libs with a wiggle of the fingers.
And increasingly, it seems like an irony lost on itself. Last week, a member of an emergency response team in Charleston, S.C., was removed from duty after not-so-furtively flashing the sign over the shoulder of his team captain during a live interview. Prior to that, legal operative Zina Bash was criticized for displaying it multiple times in the background at Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing. And earlier this summer, four members of an Alabama police force were suspended without pay for a week after a published photo caught them flashing the sign below the waist. (If it was the circle game, they’ve got a few million charley horses to deliver.)
A quick click around Twitter turns up multiple instances of the sign among members of right-wing groups operating at various degrees of alt-: from the “Western chauvinist” tight bros in tighter polos the Proud Boys to the ostensibly more love-driven “free speech” outfit the Patriot Prayers. Both groups have denounced bigotry, yet both seem to attract high numbers of angry young men spouting white nationalist talking points and sporting soon-to-be-dated haircuts, and both love declaring their OK-ness. Or playing the circle game. Or winking at the master race. Hard to say.
“If you think [OK emoji] is a racist symbol commit yourself to a mental institution immediately,” one tweeter complained amid the fresh uproar over [OK emoji].
In a vacuum, he’d have a point, as would all of those doubters hastily scouring Google to assemble a long pictorial history of people innocuously saying “OK.” But time, the elasticity of language, and several witting and unwitting forces have together conspired to change “OK” — if not a symbol of white supremacy then at least a vessel for it to be smuggled into the discourse, and pass in plain sight while retaining plausible deniability.
It’s like lowering the frequency of a dog whistle slightly; it becomes something detectable only as a murmur in the background. (Call it white noise.) It starts to seem normal.
But put aside for a moment that these hoaxes loosen the common turf of truth, making it tough for anything to take root. And put aside that any symbol can be recruited, politicized, distorted beyond recognition, and deployed into live trolling — from Fred Perry polos to cartoon frogs to Fred Perry polos with cartoon frogs.
From my less than comfortable bed here at the mental institution, my triggered, paranoid, libby, whatever brain still has the wherewithal to wonder: If a gesture is used to disingenuously signal something racist, is that really much better than, say, just signaling something racist?
That is, does treating racism like a game of “made you look,” or manipulating it as a means of public entertainment, serve to push back against bigotry or promote it? If anything, flippantly flashing a potentially racist symbol (one that has been earnestly adopted), seems like a way to indulge in the benefits of a presumed exemption from matters of race in an aggressively juvenile (or proudly boyish) way. Seems kinda racist.
But hey, that’s just me wildly guessing. There’s no way to know for sure what it all means, is there? For now, looking at the hand means suffering whatever blows come from looking. Unless, of course, we change the rules.Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.