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A student at Notre Dame Stadium flashed a disputed hand gesture. A debate about campus rhetoric ensued

| Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Minutes before the start of the Sept. 28 Virginia-Notre Dame football game, an NBC camera zoomed in on the announcers reporting from the student section. Many students were cheering. One was not.

This student stuck out his arm, his thumb and forefinger touching to form an upside down OK sign out to his right side. 

The gesture was fleeting and may have gone unnoticed by many viewers. In a video of the incident, students nearby did not seem to see it. It is the universal symbol for OK, widely-used to signal understanding or approval and even appears as an emoji.

But to others who saw it, the student’s gesture had a sinister cast. In recent years, the OK sign has been appropriated by white supremacists, according to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).

Observer File Photo

In a file photo from 2016, the Notre Dame student section cheers on the football team with rally towels in hand.

The student’s motives are unknown. Nevertheless, his gesture has become the latest flashpoint in ongoing conversations about the importance of tolerance, the boundaries for freedom of expression and the viral nature of hate speech.

The incident also underscores tensions on campus in recent months, where divisiveness — centered around issues as varied as gay rights, pro-life and pro-choice movements — has heightened sensitivity surrounding both political and apolitical discourse.

The student who made the gesture — editors at The Observer have chosen not to identify him by name — has been criticized online since the game. Through faculty in his program, the student, who denied multiple interview requests from The Observer, said the gesture was just an innocent way for him to show excitement about the game.

What began as a mockery of liberals has stuck with the white power movement. In 2017, members of the discussion board 4chan began a hoax to convince liberals the symbol has racist connotations in the hopes they would take up the charge and face ridicule. However, white supremacists later began using the sign.

The Christchurch mosque shooter, who killed 51 Muslims in New Zealand last March, flashed the gesture during a court hearing. President of white nationalist think tank the National Policy Institute, Richard Spencer, was photographed making the gesture outside the Trump International Hotel in Washington D.C. on the night of the 2016 presidential election.

The ADL notes context is critical when evaluating the gesture’s intent, and uses of the OK symbol in many contexts is completely innocuous. In addition to being used to signal approval, the sign is also used in the “Circle Game,” in which a person attempts to trick another person into looking at an upside-down OK symbol made below the waist.

Regardless of intent, public use of the symbol has sparked controversy and backlash.

An individual who made an OK hand sign in May at Wrigley Field in Chicago was banned from the venue indefinitely. A high school near Chicago announced it would reprint more than 1,700 yearbooks after students making the sign were noticed in photographs.

This is not the first time a hand sign has been co-opted by a group, effectively changing the sign’s meaning. The gang MS-13 uses a once-innocuous sign which originated in heavy metal culture — a fist with the forefinger and the pinky extended.

Regarding the student in Notre Dame Stadium, Paul Browne, the vice president of public affairs and communications at Notre Dame, said, “I’m unaware of evidence that anyone at the game used a gesture knowing it had racist connotations.”

The state on campus

In the 2018 Inclusive Campus Student Survey, 47% of students said they had experienced adverse treatment they felt was due to a personal characteristic. One in five students felt the adverse treatment was due to their political views. Among those students, 68% said it had a somewhat or very negative effect on their feeling of belonging on campus and 20% said the treatment had a somewhat or very negative effect on their feeling of safety on campus.

In recent weeks, charged battles have played out in the Observer Viewpoint section, from the poem “There’s queer blood on homophobic hands” to “There’s innocent blood on pro-choice hands.”

“We’ve kind of ripped off the facade of civility, so we’re really, really struggling,” linguistic anthropology professor Susan Blum said.

Since the 2016 election, Blum said movements like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter have gained a more prominent voice, but also have been challenged and mocked more.

Language use causes tension in partisan spheres. Despite what a word or symbol means to one group, others might understand it differently, Blum said. A Confederate flag, for example, dredges up character assumptions even if the person holding sees it to be nothing beyond a flag.

“I think it’s important that intention is not the only thing to pay attention to in language and in signs in general, but how they are received,” Blum said. “The effect they have is just as important as some sort of claimed intention.”

Anthropology professor and department chair Agustín Fuentes noted that at such a divisive time, people are hyper-attentive to potential instances of racism. 

According to Fuentes, the incident in the stadium is larger than just the student who made the hand sign. The issue lies in why people should care about the hand sign and what the response should be in instances of bigotry.

“How do we make it so that everyone knows what that sign is and no one wants to see it?” Fuentes said. “How do we get to a place where people understand why these perspectives are problematic, why they’re antithetical to what we believe as a country?”

To achieve that, Fuentes believes there should be more dialogue on campus dealing with issues like racism and white nationalism, and that Notre Dame has not yet done enough to address the increasing hate seen around the country. 

“Notre Dame should be leading in many more ways than we are. I have no trouble saying that,” Fuentes said. “We should be a beacon for an absolute stand against hate.”

Among the student body, Student Government hopes to build more bipartisan understanding through their program, Converge, which pairs together people of differing political views to discuss their views amicably.

Senior Alex Yom, director of community engagement and outreach, is leading Converge this year. In 2018, its first year, Converge had around 150 participants. This year, there are 209. 

After the 2016 election, Yom said he has seen polarization increase on campus. Yom said people struggle to talk about race, in particular.

“If people say something that they might not want to come off as insensitive, but they genuinely made a mistake, I think it’s important not to immediately call them out and say that they’re crazy and rude,” he said. “We have to come to an understanding of being open to mistakes.”

The reason behind the student’s gesture in Notre Dame Stadium remains uncertain. But it added to a conversation about free speech and the politicization of language on campus and beyond, Blum said.

As seen with the man at Wrigley Stadium, gestures, however innocuous, can have consequences.

“Kids joke around,” Blum said. “But joking around at this tense moment doesn’t feel very good to me.” 

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About Mary Bernard

Mary Bernard is a senior with a major in Anthropology and a minor in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. She grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, and is the Social Media Editor for The Observer, managing and overseeing all things audience engagement.

Contact Mary