The ‘Circle Game’ Sign: Harmless Prank or Symbol of White Supremacy?
What do you think this symbol means?
A thumb and forefinger arranged into a circle shape, with the middle, ring and pinky fingers sticking straight downwards, into an upside-down okay sign.
Once completely innocent, it’s become in recent years a hand signal that one can project all sorts of cultural meanings onto, and they range from the benign to the queasy to the downright sickening.
The gesture started its life generations ago in the form that is probably most familiar to the majority of readers: as the catalyst in the ‘circle game’. The rules are pretty simple. You make the sign surreptitiously, and if a clued-in second party looks at it, then you get to punch them in the arm. Classic good times.
In 2017, the signal was co-opted by cesspool-of-the-internet 4chan — an online forum mostly inhabited by viciously angry misogynists, racists and sociopaths — as a way to ‘troll’ lefties.
The idea was to convince the mainstream media and the Twitterati that the symbol was a secret white supremacist sign. The origin of the joke began in the possibility that the three fingers pointing down could be a W for white, and the circle plus the first finger looks like a P, for power.
The sign had been particularly popular among fans of Donald Trump, especially when its meaning could not be clearly identified. It caused controversy through its appearance in Milo Yiannopoulos’ social media output, and in the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
Then, predictably, it became an actual symbol of white supremacy. In the United States, workers including Alabama police officers and members of the Coast Guard have faced significant repercussions for publicly showing it.
Most recently, it was proudly displayed by the Christchurch terrorist while he stood handcuffed in a New Zealand court on March 16 — and its use by a mass murderer has deeply associated the sign with true hatred.
Then, two weeks after the attack, it was made again.
It was displayed the front page of an Australian capital city newspaper, by the teenage son of a prominent politician, in a story about the boy’s elite private school.
We’re not going to name the boy who made the gesture here, due to his status as a minor.
And we don’t know what his intentions were: whether he was referencing the circle game, playing a prank on a media organisation, or intentionally displaying a white supremacist symbol.
But the question of whether it was intentional or not is more or less irrelevant. As is whether or not the newspaper in question intended to print a gesture they recognised as being offensive, which they almost certainly didn’t.
This is not about the boy, his father’s status, or the media.
This is about Australia’s Muslim community.
Because the fact is that they woke up on a quiet weekday morning to discover the son of a long-time and respected political figure in their state — an entrenched member of the power establishment if there ever was one — making the same hand-sign as a gunman who had massacred 50 of their brothers and sisters not two weeks ago, printed on the front page of a newspaper belonging to one of the biggest media organisations in the country.
It is heart-breaking to think of how it would feel in a grieving community; that it had even appeared that representatives of Australia’s power structure were making light of a devastating Islamophobic attack.
If the boy did make the sign in full innocence of its new darker meaning, an online pile-on is a hard way to learn these lessons as a teenager — which is, of course, what happened, after an eagle-eyed Tweeter saw the front page and shared it.
He will almost certainly be more cautious, after the highly public scolding he received last month.
It is infuriating that a small group of rabid extremists could take a symbol that was part of a harmless game and twist it into a sign of something reprehensible; and it is exhausting to try and keep up with the news when hate is evolving at digital hyperspeed.
But we all have a responsibility to think about how what we say and do could be construed by somebody in a different community to us; who has had a completely different life to us.
The ‘circle game’ symbol is now a part of the library of alt-right shitfuckery that can be construed as hurtful in some communities — especially, now, the Muslim community.
And we all have a responsibility to prioritise supporting the healing and strength of our Muslim communities in this terrifying, divisive, post-Christchurch world.