InfoMullet: Canceling OK is the Wrong Approach – Here’s a Better Idea
TLDRUpFront: The OK hand-sign meaning “white power” started as a hoax but became self-fulfilling as hate groups began appropriating the ubiquitous hand sign. In response some seeking to counter hate-speech are trying to cancel OK, and though the concern about radical or violent non-state actors is legitimate, the approach of canceling is in this case wrong. The battle over OK is one worth fighting for. And understanding how to win it can shed light on effective strategies for countering hate-speech in other areas as well.
FullContext in the Back:
In February 2017, the forums of 4chan created a hoax that the OK hand-sign was secretly a symbol for white power, by combining the letters “w” and “p” from American Sign Language. This nonsense should’ve gone nowhere. ASL letters for w and p look nothing like OK hand-sign and as a researcher in non-state actor violence I know of no history of the sign being used that way prior to 2017. However, the hoax went viral aided by brigades of online trolls trying to provoke reaction. It was picked up by the media after the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally in 2017 marked by violent clashes, including vehicular terrorism, by white supremacists against counter-protesters. As the virus went full circle it began to infect actual white supremacists, who not knowing any better thought it was something they should start doing – so they started using it in earnest. (1)
This cultural script then wove within the larger fabric of the current environment and became a new shibboleth to watch for. Any use of the OK sign in a public context: from Congressional hearings to camera-captured uses at sports events provoked the question: was that racist? And the online debates that followed typically involved at least two of the following components:
A. A troll trying to provoke a reaction
B. A “I’m not racist” white supremacist blowing more dog whistles than Cesar Milan
C. A lot of people with no idea what’s going on asking “What?”
D. A self-identified #Resistance activist yelling at any of the above
These debates tended to coalesce into two perspectives. Those falling into A-C would tend to dismiss the concerns as silly or overstated. While many in D seemed to accept the premise that OK signaled white supremacy and, at best, sought to educate the people of C why they should stop using it or at worse engaged in a scorched earth campaign to cancel both use of OK hand-sign and those using it.
Both perspectives are flawed.
The Threat of Right-Wing Extremism is Not Silly or Overstated
When I’m not moonlighting on the InfoMullet I’m a researcher in non-state actor violence and instability. In a working draft paper, my co-authors and I analyzed over 2,400 terror incidents that occurred 1995-2017 in Western Europe and the United States, looking for patterns of radicalization. But we noted that certain violent ideologies were far more dangerous than others. In Western Europe Right-Wing extremism, Separatism, and Takfiri account for 70% of the incidents and 94% of the casualties. (2)
In the United States, Right-Wing extremism and Takfiri accounted for 41.8% of all incidents and 97.7% of all terror related casualties between 1995-2017. Takfiri terrorism accounts for 87.4% of the casualties, Right-Wing terrorism 10.3%.
Remove a single catastrophic day, 9/11/2001, from the equation and Right-Wing extremism accounts for ~61% of all other casualties related to terrorism in the United States in the last quarter century. This more than doubles the remaining Takfiri share of casualties (25%) and is sixty-times larger than the casualties of Left-Wing related terrorism (~1%).
And terrorism associated with Right-Wing extremism appeared to be accelerating in incident rates as shown in the graph below heading into the close of our period of data. Note that the y-axis is an incident rate of terror attempts per 1,000,000 people to adjust for growing-population size.
Fisherman incidents are perpetrated by non-state actors, Swarm incidents are perpetrated by unaffiliated ‘lone-wolves.’ (2)
Concern over Right-Wing extremist related terrorism is just as valid as that paid to Takfiri movements. And concern over the symbology and use of rhetoric by these groups is anchored in a real risk.
Canceling OK is the wrong response to its attempted appropriation
But a valid foundation in risk does not extend to grant validity to every strategy taken in response to that risk. This was the fatal flaw of the neo-conservative response to that catastrophic day on September 11th; that if our cause is right our methods don’t matter. It was a flawed construction then and its a flawed construction now.
Despite the real risk presented by Right-Wing extremism strategies and tactics considered and used in response have to be subjected to the same rigor as anything else we do that is important. More because of the importance of getting it right. And part of that rigor is first understanding the dynamics of asymmetric conflict, especially in the domain of rhetoric and speech, the context OK falls within.
Understanding Asymmetric vs. Conventional Conflict
The reason canceling is wrong in this circumstance is that it is leveraging a conventional strategy in an asymmetric conflict. And this makes sense. Most people only understand conflict in the conventional sense. Fed by a healthy diet of Hollywood media, military propaganda, 20th Century doctrine and an intuitive belief that it is ‘common sense.’ Conventional conflict takes place within a system between two or more opposing sides, and the one with the greatest application of force wins. Lincoln famously asked for a general who understood arithmetic to win the Civil War, and it’s no coincidence that he found his General in Grant, who desired to be a mathematics professor while at West Point.(3) From ancient times into the modern era, conventional conflict involved the brutal arithmetic of maximizing available forces at a point in time in a fixed piece battle occurring within a larger system.
Asymmetric conflict differs as it is fought through the system. Non-state actors in asymmetric conflict take advantage of thresholds and tipping points, using the enemy’s leverage, momentum, and mass against them to exploit imbalances within the systems they inhabit. This can trigger dynamics that are cheap for the non-state actor to initiate and sustain, but costly for conventional forces to counter. This imbalance in energy investment is why modern, powerful, and expensive militaries that can demolish opponents in conventional conflict struggle in asymmetric conflict.
This difference between conventional and asymmetric conflict extends from the realm of war and violence into non-violent applications as well. If well-intentioned non-state actors seek to counter the expansion of hate-speech of violent non-state actors using a conventional strategy they will struggle. And two dynamics of asymmetric conflict apply to the OK case: Parkinson’s Law and the difference between Transactional Coercion and Opt-in Legitimacy to maintain social influence.
Parkinson was an unremarkable British member of Parliament in the mid-20th Century who gained notoriety for having some salty words based on his decades of observing bureaucratic civil service up close. Upon further research, this salt proved a gold mine. The poor chap at most has a few paragraphs tucked away in a dusty biography of his years of civil service; but entire books and even teams of physicists have employed advanced math to understand his salt.(4)
Parkinson’s is best known for his adage, termed Parkinson’s Law which states “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”(5) It’s original meaning is that the time we give ourselves to do tasks correlates with the time it takes to complete the task, whether the task actually takes that much time. If I give myself a week to write an InfoMullet article, it will take the full week to complete it. Even though the actual writing only takes four hours. And if I gave myself a day it’d be done in a day.
But this adage, it turns out, points to a remarkable and powerful system effect present in many areas other than work and time. And it also applies to how we should conceive of the toxic spread of ideas by radical groups. In my work I use the example “things expand to occupy the space you give them.” In an everyday example take a kitchen pantry or cabinet and the stuff that’s in it. If you don’t set limits and make choices to remove things you don’t need, no amount of organization is going to keep the pantry or cabinets tidy. It will fill up and eventually become impossible to organize everything. Then we move some things down the hall from the pantry or cabinet to the closet. Next thing we know we’re buying ‘organizing systems’ for the closet to ‘create more space’. We’re not setting the hard limit on what we own. We’re just rearranging what we have into more accessible patterns. As the closets fill up the next stop for many is the garage, attic, or storage space; some even build sheds out back. At each step we add more space thinking that’s what’s necessary, but what was necessary was a hard limit to confine the expansion of things much further upstream. And if you think I’m exaggerating the problem of owning too much stuff bear in mind that despite all of the above, off-site self-storage is a $38 Billion-dollar industry in the US.(6)
Parkinson’s Law Applied to Abuse, PTSD and the Rhetorical Space of Hate Groups
Parkinson’s law isn’t just useful for understanding bureaucrats or kitchen clutter – it can also give us insights into abusive relationships, PTSD, and even toxic radical hate groups. Because in each of these different areas – the negative expands to the limits we provide it, and if we surrender “space” it will happily take that and then expand further.
When an abused partner surrenders one external friendship to an abusive partner seeking to isolate them, the abuser won’t stop there. They’ll want another and another until the victim has no external friends left. Or independent hobbies, financial independence or concepts of self-worth.
PTSD likewise expands to the space we give it. If a veteran at first ‘prefers’ not to watch high-realism depictions of combat scenes in movies – that may eventually lead to avoiding entire categories of movies, TV-shows and entertainment media. It leads to them avoiding activities with their friends that involve those movies. Each tendril of a specific manifestation of PTSD, and there can be many, will seek to grow and gain space in this way. This is why treatment of PTSD, often misunderstood by pundits, uses safe spaces not to avoid the reactions brought about by traumatic past experiences, but to confront and manage them in controlled, professional and above all safe settings. To set ‘limits’ on the expansion of the PTSD. And having contained those tendrils from expansion, work to narrow or reduce the limits and thus reclaim space that the PTSD had previously occupied.
As above, so below. Violent and hate-based non-state actors desire rhetorical space within which to spread their messages and expand their influence. And just like an abusive relationship or PTSD, they will expand to the limits they are given. Parkinson’s law holds. Yielding a limit to such a group when it’s not already well lost won’t cause them to stop. They won’t say “this is enough, thanks we’ll pause here.” They’ll continue to expand and with the new foothold in the space we’ve surrendered there may be other beachheads they can storm. From OK to hang loose or other symbols that they know mean one thing but seek to make mean another.
Establishing Social Influence: Transactional Coercion vs. Opt-In Legitimacy
Parkinson’s law is one half to understanding why the appropriation of OK needs to be fought asymmetrically, and not accepted conventionally. A brief foray into anthropology provides the other half by understanding how social influence is gained and sustained by state and non-state actor group. Two forms of power: transactional coercion and opt-in legitimacy determine how many resources an actor must invest to gain, and maintain, influence over a target population.
Transactional coercive power is the exercise of ‘coercion and reward’ by individuals undertaking specific actions. It requires an investment of resources on every transaction to create compliance. Opt-in legitimacy is a form of influence that relies on the repetition of credible procedures producing predictable results each time and the population conforms itself to the influence, they ‘opt-in.’ This makes opt-in legitimacy less resource intensive, a ‘cheaper’ way to gain social influence than coercive transactions. (7)
A simple illustration is the difference between how the United States collects taxes versus the mafia, a non-state actor. For the mafia the classical trope is of transactional coercive power. Two large men visit the local shop weekly, roughing up the owner, knocking over the chip stands and reminding them that payment buys peace. It makes for a good visual but imagine how many mafia enforcers you’d need to even cover a few city blocks in this way? The state, on the other hand, only exercises coercion at the extremes. It benefits from the ‘legitimacy’ of taxation as a valid function of the state and that participants have ‘opted-in’ to go along with it, whether they like it or not. This makes enforcement at the scale of a country much cheaper for the state using an opt-in legitimacy approach than coercive approach.
The Asymmetric Disadvantage of Trying to Cancel OK
Parkinson’s Law and social influence theory combine in the OK case to present a nasty asymmetric trap for those countering hate-speech. This is because unlike many uses of hate-speech that are either truly novel or stretch back decades; the OK symbol is widely used by the vast majority of the population that is unaware of what is going on. We can visualize this with the graphic below, which depicts three notional populations below: the Activists who understand and are concerned about the use of OK to signal White Power, the Trolls & Racists using it for that end, and the much larger Civilian population that is completely unaware of what’s going on.
This depicts the “system” through which Activists, Trolls & Racists, and Civilians will interact. And the Civilian population is far larger than either non-state actor groups. And seeing this system we can now turn to strategy.
Fight the enemy’s strategy, not their forces
One of the premiere counter-insurgency theorists, Dr. David Kilcullen, an Australian military officer and insurgent anthropologist, sat down one night in 2008 in Washington DC at a local bar. His intent was to write a primer on asymmetric conflict suitable for US & Coalition company and platoon officers. Short, pithy, and easily applied to the complex environment they were facing in Iraq. The twenty-eight articles, from which the paper takes its name, each consist of a single nugget of asymmetric strategy with a brief explanation. This document became an unintended Art of War spreading virally and landing on bookshelves next to Machiavelli and Sun Tzu. And although Kilcullen has authored many books on the subject, 28 Articles remains one of the most popular primers on asymmetric conflict.
Though the context is a military counterinsurgency, the Articles resonate in other forms for conflict with radical non-state actors, even in non-violent situations. And Article 25 summarizes the difference between conventional and asymmetric strategy:
“At this point the tendency is to go for the jugular and seek to destroy the enemy’s forces in open battle. This is rarely the best choice at company level, because provoking major combat usually plays into the enemy’s hands by undermining the population’s confidence. Instead, attack the enemy’s strategy: if he is seeking to recapture the allegiance of a segment of the local population, then co-opt them against him. If he is trying to provoke a sectarian conflict, go over to “peace enforcement mode”. The permutations are endless but the principle is the same – fight the enemy’s strategy, not his forces.”(11)
What is the strategy of hate groups in adopting the OK hand-sign? It is to expand into a new space seeking to initiate Parkinson’s Law and provoke combat between the Activists and the Civilians. This is depicted notionally in the graphic below:
By provoking Activists to seek to cancel OK, the Racists & Trolls have aligned the unaware Civilian population on their side. This means the Activist energy is exhausted on the civilian population, educating or trying to cancel its use. The energy of the Activists never reach the Racists & Trolls. They’ve been drawn into combat against the very population they are seeking to wean away from the hate-groups narrative.
Reification & Counter-Reification as Asymmetric Strategies
To counter the enemy’s strategy around symbology means understanding reification in the context of rhetoric and symbology. And although reification is a notoriously tricky philosophical concept with a lot of controversy in its varied meanings, in this context I’m talking about a very simplified version.
Abstract symbols including music, art, and even hand-signs have no meaning until we convey it to them. I’ve linked a video which explains this concept applied to the music of Star Wars. When we first hear the themes associated with characters in the original Star Wars, they may have little meaning and hearing them outside the movie – people might take different meanings from them. But now, forty-five years and Hollywood juggernaut later the Darth Vader theme is concrete. It’s meaning is fixed to mean Darth Vader and nothing else. It has become reified in meaning. (8)
If reification is the social process of making an abstraction cohere into only having one meaning, counter-reification is the opposite. Counter-reification seeks to take a thing that has only one or a few meaning and give it many meanings. Counter-reification is the strategy by which a limit can be established on Parkinson’s Law and we leverage Opt-In Legitimacy to defeat the appropriation of the OK hand-sign.
Consider the above example of PTSD where a veteran avoids ultra-realistic combat scenes in a movie. That avoidance is based on part on a high reification of how they have come to understand ultra-realistic combat scenes as meaning only one thing – a reliving of their past traumatic past experience. Counter-reification in this context isn’t trying to deny them that one meaning. Because that meaning is real and valid. Counter-reification is the effort to add additional meanings which can diffuse the coherence of the one meaning into one of many.
That movie with the high-realistic combat scenes? It can also gain a meaning of hanging out with friends and enjoying the experience of friendship. A meaning of the experience of getting hyped and then attending opening night of a blockbuster release at a movie theater. These other positive meanings reduce the reification of the one meaning that has a negative and allow a greater participation, even enjoyment, of an experience the PTSD had previously denied.
Success Stories of Counter-Reification as a Strategy against Hate-Speech
When it comes to hate speech and symbology; communities of color and other systemically targeted groups have a proven track record of practicing these counter-reification strategies. They have done so by reclaiming words that were reified as instruments of oppression such as “nigger” or “queer.”
Counter-reification was the effort to add new meanings to those words: pride, defiance, liberation, and expression. These efforts denied the strategy of the oppressor, setting a limit on the expansion of the rhetorical space, and fighting to reclaim; inch-by-inch the rhetorical meaning of these terms.
And these historical stories are noteworthy for the imbalance of forces at the onset. Minorities and systemically targeted populations are often vastly outmatched not just by sheer numbers, but also structural privileges and the access to resources and means that accompany that. The power of counter-reification is when these determined smaller groups, with less access to resources and power, flipped the script countering decades, or even centuries in some cases, of the highly reified meanings of these terms. These battles are not yet won, they still continue, but negative uses of racist terms or hate speech has been pushed into shibboleths and dog-whistles, the Civilian population has opted-in to legitimate self-control not to use them publicly in a negative way.
What might a counter-reification strategy look like? Natalie Wyn, of ContraPoints, articulates a sufficient one when she states:
“Instead of ruining art, why don’t we fight the pageantry of fascism with pageantry of our own.” (9)
The same approach, and multi-medium efforts used to counter-reify traditional hate terms can also be brought to bear with OK Remember the point isn’t to make OK mean only ‘one thing’; that’s the strategy of the hate groups. The strategy is to make OK mean many things, and if some of those things are odious to hate groups so much the better. Imagine ten years from now when OK could, among other meanings, also mean:
- All is well
- I’m scuba diving and everything is okay
- I am LGBTQ+ or an ally
- I am playing a game, please look at this hand-sign below my waist so I can punch you
- I fight against racism
- I support refugee rights
- I am a decent human being and hope you are too
- I like sweet tea
That OK -could- mean all those things takes away from no other group than the hate groups seeking to ensure it means only one thing, and that thing is ‘white power.’ If ten years from now a white supremacist is going to throw a hand-sign to show their beliefs – it’s not going to be the one they fear will be mistaken for being an LGBTQ+ ally or anti-racist. That’s a win. The graphic below shows how a counter-reification strategy flips the asymmetry, making the system help Activists rather than the hate-groups:
Counter-reification broadens the audience that can participate in the effort. First, it co-opts the large population of Civilians who aren’t aware this is even a conflict between hate groups and activists. And since the Civilian population has already ‘opted-in’ with legitimacy to the use of OK in the ways it has historically meant, there’s no need to invest coercive transactional power in moving them from that place. This frees resources within the counter-reification side from having to ‘educate’ people who don’t understand, and Activists can focus their energy on the much smaller population of extremists directly.
Leverage the entire population, not just the Fighters
And the population with available energy is larger as well. This is a mistake I see all the time made by soldiers, law enforcement, radicalized activists. After a lifetime of practicing confrontation in various ways surrounded by other people who do the same they begin to mistake that the rest of the population acts and thinks like they do or should. This is an error in military, law-enforcement, and activist applications.
Not everyone is by aptitude, rhetorical comfort or physicality suited for confrontation in the digital or physical realms. For example, I am a low-speed high drag Fobbit and my body is best suited for excel and air conditioning, not the kinds of combat a Special Forces operator is expected to handle. But that doesn’t mean my excel and simulations cannot help that operator find the right place to apply leverage or guide a policy to use the operator in a better way. The talents of the many, combined together, always have greater throw-weight than the specializations of a few.
A counter-reification strategy harnesses the enormous creative talent latent within the groups that would oppose hate-speech by tapping into a method already familiar. Those seeking to counter hate-speech don’t need to police social interactions with Civilians conducting coercive transactions of education or canceling. They can create and share the new meanings as memes, artwork, posts, ideas and conversations. Much as the original 4Chan hoax got picked up by the media and inadvertently became real, the counter-reification efforts will spread by similar emergence. Not everything will succeed, but that’s okay. Counter-reification works if OK means many things, which is a much easier lift than making it mean only one thing.
When is it too late for Counter-Reification? And when is it okay to hate OK?
This isn’t to say one should run out, hoist a Nazi flag and embark on counter-reification to reclaim its authentic Hindu roots.(10) Nor is it to say that every use of the term OK should be let slide when it is clearly used in the context of hate-speech.
To consider this it helps to think of an imaginary measure of reification, that starts at 0 and goes to 1. At a reification of 0, a concept means infinitely many things to as many people as see it. There is no coherence at all and virtually every use of it will be interpreted differently. At a reification of 1, that concept will mean exactly, or close, to the same thing for everyone who sees it. We use meaning here in the simple term. In the picture below, the Nazi flag on the right has a reification approaching 1. Everyone knows that this image “means” a Nazi flag. What that flag means in a big-M sense may differ, but few if any are confused that it is a Nazi flag. The image on the left however, the OK sign, has a much lower may reification as a secret symbol for white power.
Some may argue this point – because they’ve seen dozens of articles, engaged in hours-long discussions and are quite sure that the entire universe by this point knows that OK means white power. But it’s easy to over-estimate societal meanings when social media and content platforms are creating algorithmic echo-chambers, so we are surrounded by people who act and think like us. We can argue at the edges of whether OK’s reification as a secret sign of white power is 0.03 or 0.07. But it’s too new a usage, going up against too entrenched a historic usage with no commonality to be much more than that.
And when we think of reification in that way we can use it as a gauge for when we should use the asymmetric counter-reification strategy, or a more conventional strategy of confrontation, education, and isolation as shown below.
The math isn’t complex. If a symbol or idea is at least half-reified to mean many things, it’s worth the fight to keep it from being reified to mean only one thing to the benefit of hate-groups. This is because at those levels there’s going to be a sizeable audience for whom the meaning does not align with hate speech, and that audience, even if they remain unaware can be leveraged in the same as with OK. Counter-Reification also establishes the limits that put Parkinson’s Law back into the same Pandora’s box it originally flew out of while leveraging asymmetric dynamics that are harder to identify and respond to by conventional thinkers. Radicalized non-state actors do not adopt these asymmetric strategies because they have brilliant thinkers but through emergence – many groups try many things and through natural selection the strategies most successful, which tend to be asymmetric, become ingrained. Non-state actor groups trying to respond to a counter-reification asymmetric strategy are as likely to be confused and befuddled of what to do as any other conventional force. Which is why conventional armies have struggled against guerilla uprising going back to Spanish Hapsburg occupation of the Netherlands!
And this is a simplified depiction. Circumstances matter and one size, or infographic, won’t fit all. Context matters. At a protest event attended by white supremacists someone holding a Nazi-flag throwing the OK sign is not signaling their scuba gear is fine and they’re doing okay. Likewise, a systemically targeted group under the burden of a highly reified hate term always retain the agency to seek to take it back, and those efforts should be supported.
How can we know the reification level of hate-speech or symbols?
The guidance of strategy above implies we know the current level of reification, which in most cases is impossible for any one individual. None of us, or at least most of us, don’t walk around with a vast archive of hate speech terms and symbols with numerical ratings. And even if we could there’d be question on how accurate our personal assessments would be given the uncertainties and limits of our own knowledge and experience. As below so above, and organizations also struggle with when and how to respond to the appearance of terms on their horizon. Do they clamp down hard up front to ban the usage, wait and see, or begin counter-reifying within their own space?
But there are groups that specialize in this, and they do maintain vast archives of hate speech terms and symbols. The Anti-Defamation League is one such source. They have a good team of experts, a transparent method, and have been doing this for a long time. Their database has over 214 entries, each with an accompanying article. Concerned individuals, encountering a new term in the wild, could use this link that is placed right here to research on their own. And organizations looking for out-sourced support may configure their policies to leverage the ADL as objective criteria of when they will, or won’t, ban certain terms or gestures or seek to counter-reify the meaning in their own spaces.
Hold fast to your arms till the hard fight is well ended
If one were to jump to the end of this document and seek a pithy take-away here it is: Asymmetric conflict is hard. Harder than conventional. And picking the right strategy in asymmetric arenas is far more about understanding the dynamics at play, and picking the right tool for the job, than it is doing what feels right. You can’t just rely on one weapon, one strategy, one tactic and hammer it over and over again expecting winning results. But the fights in the non-violent rhetorical space are just as important as those in the conventional ones. Winning an asymmetric conflict against the Nazi’s when they were just one of many non-state actors in the Weimar Republic might have avoided having to defeat them when they became a conventional nightmare after seizing power.
Counter-reification is one weapon in an armory of armaments for those seeking to become effective at countering hate-speech and the rise of radical non-state actors. But as a non-violent weapon it only works if we hold it fast and not surrender rhetorical ground just because our opponents have arrived upon the battlefield. It requires us to recognize that field holds more bystanders than it does extremists, and if we charge in a wave of coercive power we’re going to hit more friends than foes. Winning requires harnessing the collective power of all the participants who want to join in the conflict, not just the specialists most adept at hand-to-hand fighting.
(2) T. Clancy, O. Pavlov, B. Addison, and K. Saeed, “Behavior Modes of Terrorism: Descriptive Analysis of 4,400 Incidents Classified by Violent Ideology and Suspected Swarm or Fishermen Radicalization,” Working Draft, Aug. 2019.
(7) T. Clancy, “Theory of an Emerging-State Actor: The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) Case †,” Systems, vol. 6, no. 2, p. 16, May 2018, doi: 10.3390/systems6020016.