11 Jul 2022

Gestural politics

When feelings run high, it is easy to believe that gestures speak louder than words. They pack a powerful punch, are highly visible and many gestures are considered to be universal.

But this is where the problems lie. Many gestures are open to a spectrum of interpretation, and there is rarely universal consensus about what they connote. It is clear that a gesture such as giving the finger is an insult – but on what level? The gesture’s origins can be traced back to Classical Greece and Rome (it was known as the digitus impudicus), where its meaning was unapologetically sexual and physically threatening. It is unclear how the gesture fared in subsequent centuries, but we do know that it was resurrected in the United States, probably introduced by Italian immigrants, in the 19th century.  Famously, a well-known baseball pitcher for the Boston Braves, named Charles Radbourn, used the gesture when posing for a team photograph in 1886, the first person to do so on camera. In 1982, Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau (father of current prime minister Justin Trudeau) gave the middle finger to a group of protesters while on a train in western Canada. The event became a national sensation, and from then on the middle finger became known as the “Trudeau salute” in Canada. In North America the gesture continues to be considered lewd and insulting, frequently deployed by celebrities who have been enraged by fans or paparazzi, or as a sign of protest and defiance.

In the United Kingdom, however, giving the finger is a comparatively recent import from the US, and may not carry the same weight. We have our own unique home-grown insult, the two-finger salute with the palm facing inwards. In Britain this hand signal has much the same meaning as the finger in the US, and is understood to be an offensive gesture, especially when the hand is moved up an down for added effect. It is possible that the V-sign developed from a much older horns symbol (made with the little finger and forefinger), used to denote a cuckold from at least the 16th century. When the palm is turned outwards, the gesture is used to denote Victory or, from the 1960s onwards, peace. Winston Churchill made much use of the V for Victory sign in the Second World War, though interestingly there are also many photographs of him gesturing with his palm facing inwards – we can only guess if this was intentional or merely a careless error.

It will already be apparent that these gestures are charged with meaning, but their comparative gravitas and impact is very much in the eye of the beholder, and factors like gender, age, nationality and the context in which the gesture is used will all come into play. They should therefore be used with extreme caution, as there is a risk that a casually flipped finger will induce feelings of murderous rage or profound humiliation in recipients. Children should certainly be discouraged from aping adults and using these gestures, and made to understand that using them carries a certain risk.

In addition, these gestures – as Winston Churchill clearly understood – are highly photogenic. They are a visual shorthand, creating an instantly arresting image and making the need for captions superfluous. As such, they are an extremely blunt instrument, incapable of conveying subtlety or nuance. Anyone in the public eye should be extremely wary of using these gestures, as they may well come to symbolise the perpetrator, and in the most unflattering light.

The instant gratification of an insulting hand gesture should therefore be carefully weighed against its possible impact – both on other people, who may be incensed or insulted by the gesture, and on the person from whom it originates, who may be defined by their action and ridiculed because of it.

Many of us will find ourselves in situations where we feel we have reached the end of our tether, when other people’s behaviour, especially if it is mocking or provocative, can tip us over the edge. It is admirable if, in extremis, we are able to present a smooth, unruffled exterior to the world, and do not rise to the bait and behave in a way that we will later regret.


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