Is giving the finger still offensive?
First MIA, and now Adele – flipping the bird seems to be all the rage for female pop singers. But has the gesture lost its power to shock?
Many years before Adele stuck it to the suits at the Brit awards, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and the economist Piero Sraffa were travelling on a train from Cambridge to London. It proved to be a key moment in 20th-century philosophy. They were chatting about Wittgenstein's idea that every proposition had to have a precise place in the axiomatic order of rational language, independently of the various contexts in which it may be employed. And then, according to fellow philosopher Norman Malcolm, "Sraffa made a gesture, familiar to Neapolitans and meaning something like disgust or contempt, of brushing the underneath of his chin with an outward sweep of the finger tips of one hand".
Sraffa's point was that there are many things in heaven and earth that didn't fit in Wittgenstein's philosophy. Any philosophy of language must account for hand gestures, not just Neapolitan ones, but the Reverse Churchill (not V for Victory but the other way round), the Bras d'Honneur, the Grecian Moutza (sticking five fingers at the insultee), Onanism's Fisty Homage (you know the one), L for loser and the eloquently Italianate Forearm Jerk and Accompanying Chin Flick. It also needs to make sense of why the Fig Gesture (making your thumb peep between index and ringer finger in a closed fist) is obscene in France, Greece, Japan, Russia, Serbia and Turkey, but betokens good luck in Portugal and Brazil.
By the time they got off the train, Wittgenstein realised he would have to change his whole philosophy. True story. Sadly, he died in 1951 and so never lived to see how one gesture – the middle finger of one's right hand – would become the universal go-to signal of contempt in a globalised culture increasingly impoverished of regional gestural variations.
These thoughts occurred to me on Tuesday while watching Tottenham's finest extend the middle finger of her right hand in anger when one of her acceptance speeches at the Brit awards ceremony was cut short. As poshsophie commented on the BBC online's report of this story, "Funny how when the tennis or football overrun, no one complains …" Funny, poshsophie, and possibly sexist too. My money says women get silenced before their time on telly much more often than men do. And funny too that Adele was cut short so that Blur could perform and witter endlessly on accepting their Venerable Rock Bores award or whatever it was. "Their live performance was a shambles and even embarrassing," according to Victor63 on the same site. "To think they cut Adele short for that."
"She was right in the middle of giving an emotional acceptance speech about how she was proud to be flying the flag for Britain," wailed the Daily Mail. "So when she was interrupted so Brit awards host James Corden could introduce Blur, Adele didn't take too kindly." What's striking about this report is that the Mail all but endorses Adele's rude gesture because, surely, she's too big a deal for the Mail to apply its normal strictures about rudeness.
What was most extraordinary about this incident was that the focus of the outrage was not on the gesture but on the affront to Adele. "We would like to apologise to Adele for the interruption," said an ITV spokesman – rather than, presumably, to viewers for having gestural filth flung at their pop kids. On Twitter, fans were more outraged by the abbreviation of her, frankly, dull speech (she's many wonderful things but Dorothy Parker isn't one of them) than, say, the tragedy in Homs.
Contrast this with what happened earlier this month at the Super Bowl when US-based British Sri Lankan rapper MIA shocked 114 million American football fans by giving them the finger during the half-time show fronted by Madonna. (Let's not go nuts – probably millions were unshocked/heading off to find another beer/updating their Facebook statuses etc.) In the following apologies you can nearly hear jowls shaking in official shame. "Our system was late to obscure the inappropriate gesture and we apologise to our viewers," NBC spokesman Christopher McCloskey said in a statement. "The obscene gesture in the performance was completely inappropriate, very disappointing and we apologise to our fans," said Brian McCarthy, NFL spokesman. "I understand it's punk rock and everything, but to me there was such a feeling of love and good energy, and positivity," said Madonna. "It seemed negative."
Sheez, Madge, when did you start to sound like someone's hippy nan?
But US sensibilities have been on red alert ever since the Nipple Ripple at Super Bowl 2004 when Justin Timberlake pulled at Janet Jackson's bustier and exposed the unthinkable to a still-traumatised nation (Did her wardrobe really malfunction? Was it a set-up to boost Janet and Justin's careers? If only Wittgenstein were alive to address these philosophical conundrums.)
Nipplegate 2004 makes me think of John Cooper Clarke's poem on prudery, in which he noted that you'll never see a nipple in the Daily Express. Maybe Americans are more puritanical than Express readers. It's possible. Adele's apology, after all, was conditional. "Sorry if I offended anyone," she said, "but the suits offended me." She thus goes to the heart of that great modern subject, the ethics of offence. Is offence always something that implies offender was morally wrong in upsetting the ickle sensibilities of offendee?
In the US, certainly, the history of flipping the bird is one of offence taken, hackles risen and, often, police time wasted. In Louisiana in 1980, a contractor was arrested painting a 30ft-high image on a supermarket wall of Mickey Mouse flipping the bird with the caption, "Hey Iran!".
In 1996, eight states banned Bad Frog Beer because its label showed an amphibian with a webbed finger raised. The brewery (I love this) retorted that because the frog had only four fingers, it couldn't be raising the middle one.
US law professor Ira Robbins in 2008 pondered whether flipping the bird is speech protected under the first amendment in a law review article entitled, Digitus Impudicus: The Middle Finger and the Law: "The US Supreme Court has consistently held that speech may not be prohibited simply because some may find it offensive," he noted, adding that most such cases, where there was no other criminal behaviour, collapsed.
So what was MIA up to? Trying to widen her fan base Stateside by scandalising a nation?
Expressing fluency in the international language of stupid? Sticking it to the man, old school?
Or new school? A source close to the rapper told ABC News Radio that MIA was "caught up in the moment" and hadn't meant "to make any kind of statement". Perhaps the London-born rapper didn't realise that in the US, flipping the bird is offensive, coming as she does from Hounslow, where extending the middle finger is a mild, sometimes even jaunty, rebuke.
Oscar Wilde suggested that Britain and America were two nations divided by a common language; now we're two nations divided by a common finger. "The cultural difference in this is that flipping the bird over there is like the V sign over here," says Robert Phipps, author of Body Language: It's What You Don't Say That Matters. "It's telling you to eff off. They don't have any other gesture like that. Over here it's become quite accepted and doesn't carry the same meaning. Most people under the age of 50 don't find it offensive. It didn't even exist in this country until about 30 years ago."
Phipps argues that Adele's gesture will even be hailed by her fans as an expression of her no-nonsense persona. "She calls a spade a spade and her fans like that. She wasn't behaving provocatively to plug the brand, she was impulsively rebuking the organisers, not her fans."
Phipps maintains most body language is unconscious: "This is different. It's her consciously saying: 'I don't like this. I want it to show.'"
In a paper for the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, How extending your middle finger affects your perception of others: Learned movements influence concept accessibility, University of Michigan psychologists Jesse Chandler and Norbert Schwarz test the idea that extending the middle finger can make other people seem more hostile. "It tests whether symbolic body movements affect the interpretation of ambiguous behaviors by increasing the accessibility of learned movement-congruent concepts," they wrote. Let's try that in plain English: "Making the middle-finger gesture brings hostile thoughts to mind," Chandler told Time in 2009. "In our studies, participants were not even aware that their finger movements resembled 'the finger', and they nevertheless perceived an unrelated other as a more hostile person."
Where did flipping the bird come from? One account contends that English longbowmen invented it in 1415 at the battle of Agincourt. "The French, anticipating victory over the English, proposed to cut off the middle finger of all captured English soldiers. Without the middle finger it would be impossible to draw the renowned English longbow and therefore [soldiers would] be incapable of fighting in the future." So sticking it to the French with upraised middle finger before battle was a gesture of defiance. But this is confuted by other accounts of the battle in which English longbowmen raised two fingers to express odium for their foes. (These accounts argue they used two rather than one digit to draw the bow, you see.) Hence the V sign rather than the bird flip.
In Gestures: Their Origins and Distribution, anthropologist Desmond Morris and colleagues argue that the digitus infamis or digitus impudicus (infamous or indecent finger) is mentioned several times in ancient Roman literature – making the Agincourt story even more dubious.
Thus, for example, epigrammatist Martial: "Laugh loudly, Sextillus, when someone calls you a queen and put your middle finger out." No one calls Sextillus a queen. Before that, in Athens in the fourth century BC, Diogenes the Cynic told visitors what he thought about the orator Demosthenes by extending his finger and saying: "This is the great demagogue." But you didn't get a spokesman apologising for Diogenes's rudeness.
In any event, many centuries later, according to Morris, Italian immigrants took the middle-finger gesture to the US along with olive oil and fine wines. As early as 1886, a baseball pitcher for the Boston Beaneaters was photographed giving it to a member of the rival New York Giants. How delightful, incidentally, that a team called the Beaneaters existed.
"It's one of the most ancient insult gestures known," Morris told the BBC. "The middle finger is the penis and the curled fingers on either side are the testicles. By doing it, you are offering someone a phallic gesture. It is saying, 'This is a phallus' that you're offering to people, which is a very primeval display."
Is this what Adele was doing on Tuesday? It seems unlikely. But it is significant that 2012's leading exponents of giving the finger are women: perhaps, after years when the finger was a male thing, expressing, in part, truculently hip-hoppy antinomianism (think Eminem with two middle fingers aloft). Arguably, hip-hop's imagery made all kinds of gestures not just acceptable but de rigueur in straight society. Hence, for instance, when presidential candidate Barack Obama used the gesture of brushing dirt from his shoulder in 2008, he was deliberately referencing Jay-Z's 2003 single Dirt Off Your Shoulder.
But some gestures aren't so readily assimilated into mainstream culture. When Ryan Florence made a gun gesture at David Cameron in 2007 during a tour of Wythenshawe, he became for a while the nation's most notorious hoodie. Even Cameron didn't want to hug him.
Fine, but why flipping the bird? The charmingly unreliable Urban Dictionary argues that "flipping the bird" is "the process of taking a bird, normally a pigeon, and turning it upside down in an effort to see its genitalia". So perhaps the gesture simulates birdlife abuse –and Bill Oddie should be very concerned.
Where now for flipping the bird? The ubiquity of the gesture may herald its demise. In an article agonising about what the gesture had done to US society, the New York Times quoted John McCarthy, who teaches decorum to young athletes and parents at the Yogi Berra Museum in Little Falls, New Jersey: "Because it's so prevalent, the shock value has gone from it," he said, adding: "That doesn't make it appropriate."
And what's true for the US is even more the case in the UK, where the finger hasn't had shock value for quite a while. That said, maybe Adele shouldn't have been rude to the suits. It was inappropriate if not shocking. After all, suits have feelings too. And spouses. And children who may have been allowed to stay up and are now quite possibly being counselled for the emotional trauma involved in seeing their parents dissed by pop's reigning queen. In any case, it's not the Brit's organisers whom Adele should be lambasting but couturier Karl Lagerfeld who called her "too fat" this month. He really was asking for the finger and a lot else besides.
The shock index: is giving the finger still offensive? | Society | The Guardian
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