In 2020, a photograph surfaced of one-time presidential advisor and pardoned felon Roger Stone and some Proud Boy friends flashing an OK sign in a bar. This year, Oregon Democrats called out gubernatorial candidate Betsy Johnson for flying a Confederate flag at her campaign rallies (she was unrepentant). In mid-August, rainbow crosswalks in downtown Atlanta were defaced with swastikas – twice in two days.
Some have argued that there has been a rise in extremism and hate — including racist, antisemitic, xenophobic, homophobic, mysoginistic and other hate speech and violence — and that the increase has been energized by the words and actions of certain public figures. Whether this is true or not, one thing is sure: Visual manifestations of those beliefs are now commonplace. (These are the largest hate groups in America.)
Symbols are shorthand – memorable graphic evocations of a movement, a philosophy, a feeling, an organization, a religion. A heart says “love;” a cross says “Christianity;” a skull and crossbones says “poison” or “danger” or “death.” Codes are a secret language understood only by those who have the key – the initiated, as it were. Symbols are another means of expression.
Both symbols and codes can be powerful tools for communicating ideas or signaling solidarity with others — and they are popular today with hate groups. The Confederate flag, the swastika, the not-equal sign, numerical codes like 88, acronyms like ROA or WWGOWGA appear all too often in the news, on social media, and sometimes in the streets. It is important to know what they stand for.
To assemble a list of some of the most common hate symbols and codes – as well as acronyms, which are a kind of code – 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the Anti-Defamation League’s Hate on Display Hate Symbols Database and “Signs of hate: Parental guide to far-right codes, symbols and acronyms” in The Guardian, which in turn drew information from Hope Not Hate’s publication “Signs of Hate: A Safeguarding Guide to Online Hate.”
Sometimes there seems to be no logic to the symbols. Pepe the Frog, for example, made his debut as a socially inappropriate, but hardly racist, amphibian in 2005 in artist Matt Furie’s stoner comic “Boy’s Club #1.” Pepe quickly achieved relatively innocuous meme status. By 2008, though, the alt-right had seized on the image, often manipulating it to express angry moods and messages of hate.
A more extreme example of a symbol acquiring a meaning far from its original one is the cross with bent arms – the swastika. Dating back about 12,000 years, the symbol was associated with prosperity and good fortune in many Asian countries and other places worldwide.
The Nazi swastika version – black, rotated 45 degrees, and surrounded by a field of red – was apparently designed by Hitler himself. It became the most instantly recognizable and reviled symbol of Nazi Germany, and later of white supremacy and antisemitism. (The swastika was hardly the only emblem employed by the Nazis. Here are 30 symbols used by the Nazis to mark their victims.)
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