Could be a product of ‘moral panic’
A psychology professor suggested “symbolic overreaction” might be at play in the recent makeover of Nebraska Cornhuskers’ mascot Herbie Husker, who had his “OK symbol” replaced because some thought it signaled white supremacy.
Mascot Herbie’s left hand, which once formed the “OK” symbol, now raises an index finger to show that the team is number one, The College Fix reported January 30.
Roger Kreuz, a psychologist at the University of Memphis, wrote a column in The Conversation on April 26 headlined “A tweak to the University of Nebraska’s logo shows how the once benign ‘OK’ sign has entered a ‘purgatory of meaning.'”
“…How did something as benign and commonplace as the ‘OK’ hand gesture come to assume such sinister undertones? And what does the University of Nebraska’s willingness to change its mascot say about the ways in which ambiguous signs and symbols can take on a life of their own?”
Kreuz cited as a similar “overreaction” the June 2020 case of a utility employee in San Diego who supposedly signaled white supremacy with the “OK” hand sign as he dangled his arm from a company truck.
Someone took a picture and reported him to his company, which fired him, according to The Hill. The employee claimed to have been cracking his knuckles.
In April 2021, nearly 600 former Jeopardy contestants signed a statement denouncing hate after a contestant held up three fingers in celebration of having won previous games, Kreuz wrote.
Oversensitivity to perceived hate signaling “can be characterized as symptoms of moral panic, in which the media, politicians and activists fan the flames of uncertainty and worry,” Kreuz wrote.
The common symbol — bringing the index finger and the thumb together in an “O” — was once “benign and commonplace,” Kreuz wrote. It took on hate speech associations for some when Milo Yiannopoulos, Richard Spencer, and others started using the gesture in posed photos in 2015, and after anonymous messaging site 4-chan launched “Operation O-KKK.”
In 2019, the Anti-Defamation League added the “Okay Hand Gesture” to its “Hate on Display™ Hate Symbols Database,” identifying its use as a “racist hand sign.”
However, the ADL’s entry also noted that “OK” is “an obvious and ancient gesture that has arisen in many cultures over the years with different meanings.”
“The overwhelming usage of the ‘okay’ hand gesture today is still its traditional purpose as a gesture signifying assent or approval,” according to the ADL. “As a result, someone who uses the symbol cannot be assumed to be using the symbol in either a trolling or, especially, white supremacist context unless other contextual evidence exists to support the contention.”
According to Kreuz: “As these examples make clear, moral panics often reflect society’s anxieties.”