The Semiotics of Protest: A New Primer

May 26, 2018

Since we have entered the Age of Resistance, it’s important to keep one’s protest muscles well-toned. With all the marching, kneeling, standing, sitting, walking out, gesturing, and pumping of hand-lettered placards up and down—not to mention furious typing on Twitter—ordinary citizenship in the United States now demands a higher level of physical fitness than we American couch potatoes are accustomed to.

Moreover, it can be confusing trying to parse what all these exertions mean. If I hold three fingers in the air, does that mean I intend to join the Mockingjay and rebel against the Capital? Or that I’m not a fan of the Thai military coup? And does two arms in the air with hands turned down still mean “I disagree,” as it did during the Occupy sit-ins? Speaking of sit-ins, is sitting always a protest gesture? Or just outside important buildings? And what about the hokey-pokey? Is that an elaborate protest dance of some kind?

It’s time for a review of basic protest semiotics. As every post-structuralist knows, signs are not inevitably connected to things; they are contextual, dynamic, and multivalent. And these days, protest gestures have become a complex language, complete with syntax and subordinate clauses. We need hermeneutical help.

So here’s my attempt to sort out some of the more ambiguous gestures and to suggest a few new ones. I do this with (seriously) great respect for the importance and necessity of protest.

Since you need to get your body involved to really understand, go ahead and stretch a bit, maybe jog around the living room to warm up. Breathe deeply now. Inhale, exhale. OK, ready? Here we go.

Kneeling
Let’s start with a very confusing action. Down on one knee. Yep, just like that. Used to be, this posture meant “I love you, please marry me.” In a liturgical context, down on both knees has for centuries meant “This is the really serious stuff, and I am trying to be humble about it.”

When Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players started kneeling during the national anthem, though, things got complicated. They were trying to convey the following: “I protest police brutality, especially against African Americans. At the same time, I respect this country and those who have served in our military and therefore I am making this carefully considered gesture.” Since kneeling derives connotations of humility and respect from the aforementioned contexts, the players hoped their message would get across.

However, a message that subtle and nuanced is bound to be misunderstood, and so it has been, unsurprisingly by the current president. To him, this gesture means: “I hate America. Everything about it. I deserve to be deported. Immediately.”

Meanwhile, according to the NFL, kneeling during the national anthem means “I am risking your corporate profits. I should be reprimanded and fined. Or stay in the locker room and not cause any trouble.” (The NBA commissioner, it seems, has another interpretation.)

As Rachel Held Evans pointed out, some varieties of Anabaptists, for religious reasons, do not pledge allegiance or sing the national anthem, and so far they are not under threat of deportation nor relegated to locker rooms. So maybe there’s a racial inflection to this NFL thing, what with 94% of NFL franchise owners and 75% of head coaches being white while 70% of players are black? Hmmm.

Here’s an interesting (and unlikely) hypothetical: What would a Mennonite football player do?

Not sure, but if you wish to protest the NFL’s decision, you might try this gesture during pro football games: place your thumb over the “off” button on your remote control. Press.

Arms crossed over chest
All right, get off those knees. Shake out the legs. Good. Now let’s work those arms. While standing, make fists and cross forearms. Be strong about it! This means “Wakanda forever.” It is usually a celebration of black excellence. I suppose if a black football player were to do this during the national anthem, it would mean “Mr. President, I know you wish to deport us, and I would gladly remove myself to Wakanda, but sadly that is only a fantasy kingdom. I shall have to stay here.”

Walking out
Find the nearest door and stride right through it. This may be physically simple but the semiotics are complex and evolving. In March, when students walked out of class, this gesture conveyed “I go to school every day in fear because the leaders of this country do not have the moral courage to pass common-sense gun control laws. This is the only form of power I currently have. However, someday soon, I will vote.”

In June, at the Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting, many women (and their male allies) are planning to walk out when retiring Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Paige Patterson gets up to deliver a sermon. When they do so, walking out will mean “I can’t believe the SBC leadership still let this guy preach today and also provided him with the most cushy retirement package ever instead of reprimanding him and using this as an occasion to disavow the protection of abusers, the patronizing of women, the dismissing of victims of sexual violence and harassment, and all the other instances of God-offending sexism that SBC leadership has long justified with biblical proof-texting. Also, did you read Jonathan Merritt’s scathing take-down of SBC leadership?”

Goodness, that’s a mouthful. See how much you can express with a purposeful trek to the door?

Now that we’ve dealt with the basics, let’s tangle up our bodies in more challenging contortions, thus expanding our protest vocabulary. Here we need some help from the practice of yoga.

Down dog
Get on all fours. Now raise your rear end, lifting your knees. Stretch until your arms and legs are straight and your body forms a triangle with the ground. Doesn’t your back feel nice and stretched? This posture could mean “Pets are people, too, and deserve rights.” Or it might convey, simply, “Adopt a rescue pet!”

Child’s pose
Back on all fours. Now sink back on your “sitting bones,” bring feet together, spread knees, and lean forward, stretching your arms in front of you along the ground. So comfortable, you could stay in this pose forever, right? That’s why it’s a good protest pose. It could mean “I support education funding” or “Do not cut the WIC program” or this week it could mean “You lost 1500 migrant children? Really? Perhaps we should find them RIGHT NOW!”

Mountain pose
Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent. Spread out your toes to grip the earth. Arms at your sides, slightly away from the body. Shoulders back, neck stretched. Oh, you feel strong now, right? This could express either “Please do not strip-mine in my region” or “I protest that oil pipeline.”

Lotus pose
Sit on the floor, cross-legged. Real lotus pose is harder, but this will do for now. Rest your hands on your knees. Spine nice and tall. Good. Close your eyes. Think about nature. This conveys “I protest the mall development that will destroy delicate wetlands.”

Savasana
Also known as corpse pose. Lie on your back, with lower back slightly arched. Arms at your sides, palms up. Heels together, feet fallen open like a book. Close your eyes and just relax. There you go. This means “All this protesting and resisting is exhausting. Please let me nap.”

Well, no doubt you can think of your own protest gestures to help expand our resistance vocabulary. Suggest ideas in the comments below. Meanwhile, remember to breathe.

 

I have published books on motherhood, Christian spirituality, and language in worship. I write regularly about all sorts of topics for The Twelve, and I teach literature and writing at Calvin College, where I have served on the faculty since 1996.

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