Select your default skin tone

The trouble with using symbols as codes

In the realm of obscure Nazi arcana, for at least one small corner of their would-be empire, the fascists’ insistence on outing Jews basically backfired.

The twisted practice of requiring ethnic, creedal, and even cultural Jews to wear yellow badges has been around since the aptly named Dark Ages—with both Muslims and Christians preferring to identify who was “to blame” for their various suffering.

This sort of state-sanctioned scapegoating reached a fever pitch in the early twentieth century as the National Socialist German Workers’ Party became more and more open about the ethnic cleansing aspects of its agenda. Suspected Jews, actual Jews, synagogues, Jewish-owned businesses, community centers, and eventually even sympathizers, all had to comport with the societal need to know who was on the side of systemic oppression, entrenched power and treachery (the Jews) and who was on the side of the poor, downtrodden Germanic people.

The various iconography of western European nation states—and even the ancient symbols for man and woman—no longer provided a sufficient amount of identifying information for the work at hand. Existing symbols—the star of David, the swastika—were repurposed as explicit codes indicating allegiance. In the minds of dualistic revolutionaries, these visual markers are necessary for the progress of humankind. If you’ve seen Terrence Malik’s masterpiece A Hidden Life (and if you haven’t, stop reading this drivel at once and go watch it), you’ll recall that “silence is violence” was the order of the day in even the most far-flung corners of the Third Reich.

Fascism requires legitimating violence which requires vocal assent.

Speaking of far-flung corners, we really should get back to that promised obscure arcana. So as it turns out, in the small landlocked and unceremoniously annexed Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, a good many citizens could plainly see that the impoverished Jews had nothing to do with the struggles of the so-called Aryan people. As ethnic Czechs themselves, one hopes they were able to detect the wickedness underlying the whole notion of race—even though they happened to fall on the side of power.

It became a form of quiet protest to extend even basic courtesies to those wearing the stigmatized yellow badge. Tipping the hat. Holding the door. These occupied people pushed back ever so slightly through the simplest of dignifying acts. And here’s the thing: the Nazis couldn’t stand it. They passed all kinds of local laws making it a crime to tip your hat to a Jewish man or hold the door for a Jewish woman. So pervasive was the government’s hatred that any humanizing gesture, however commonplace, served as an affront to noble work of “righting these ancient wrongs.”

Again, these social niceties—embodied symbols of respect and deference— were just too broad, too universal. The work of social movements requires re-sorting and re-assigning esteem and value, which might require turning symbols into codes.

I was thinking about all of this yesterday while riding my motorbike through the rolling landscape of my native Virginia. Where I live is home to a culturally rich cross section of the American south. From the seat of my Harley, I saw ramshackle cabins, pristine estates, and everything in between.

And because the weather was perfect, most everyone was outside in their yard to see (and hear) me rumble past. Dressed in jeans and a jacket, gloves, and a helmet with tinted visor, I was completely nondescript. Merely human. I could have been male or female, Sudanese or Swedish, any political persuasion and/or dietary preference.

And I was struck—nearly to the point of tears—by how kind everybody was.

I received some form of a wave, salute, smile, greeting, or thumbs-up from dozens and dozens of people I’ve never met. Some were wearing masks. Some were wearing Black Lives Matter t-shirts. Some were wearing Trump 2020 hats. Some—and one portly gentleman on a riding lawnmower, in particular—weren’t wearing much at all.

And nearly all of them raised a hand of recognition and warm greeting to the anonymous symbol of recreational internal combustion: me.

Which brings me, I suppose, to the topic of emoji. Recently, applications and operating systems have begun offering a skin tone setting for what is increasingly (and perhaps woefully) our common tongue: very small pictures of stuff thoughtlessly transmitted. As a point of comparison, avatars are projections of identity and rightly rooted in physical attributes. You may deign to select a signature hair style, a favorite accessory, etc. But I’ve always conceived of emoji as symbols, and symbols are at their best when at their most universal.

That is to say, the best thumbs-up symbol works for every human on the planet. The best avocado, too. By happily agreeing to select a default skin tone, we are at the very least acknowledging that our skin’s pigmentation is an important aspect of what we communicate. Even though the intentions of its creators—I assume—are very much the opposite, this positions emoji as the language most conducive to prejudice.

As our symbols become more descriptive of things like sex (or not) and skin color (or not), they cannot help but exacerbate our latent tribal instincts. And as those same symbols—with their built-in markers of physical identity—mature into syntax and become language, we will witness the marginalization and silencing of voices based on those arbitrary attributes.

I would submit the profane (and often antisemitic) codes of numerous fringe movements—often metastasizing as GIFs and emoji on platforms like 4chan—as evidence of this anthropology. It is very easy to scapegoat a symbol, especially if that symbol precedes the human to whom it is attached.

Reading this a week ago, you may have been able to brush it aside. But I would contend that the abhorrent and widely viewed murder of George Floyd, which has rightly galvanized a national movement against the too-often brutal and asymmetrically applied tactics of police, requires us to critically consider our symbols in a time of cultural change.

Friends in my hometown of Richmond are awake all night in fear that their businesses and homes will be vandalized or destroyed by the violent demonstrations there. Many of my favorite non-profits have taken to affixing signs that announce “Black Lives Matter” and “Community Organization” to their doors and windows—a desperate appeal to rioters to leave them be.

A sort of inverted yellow badge.

Consider taking a small stand in whatever corner of the digital space you inhabit. In the most meager of ways, channel your inner Franz Jägerstätter and decline to declare your allegiance—even if that comes at some cost. Let your activism take the shape of universal symbols, not the codes of identity groups. Let your alliance look like genuine friendships and neighborliness, not token mea culpas on social media and dualistic memes.

In general, I suspect liberal societies prefer flexible symbols of inclusive utility which derive their power by connecting, while illiberal societies elevate symbols which tap into tribal impulses and accrue potency through division.

So if your version of a better tomorrow necessitates coercing assent through shame or fury, remember your many illiberal predecessors. From the very beginning, this project called civilization has strained beneath dominant powers that needed troubling. That force of empire has gone by many names: Egypt, Babylon, Rome, Hanzu, Great Britain, the United States, and of course, White Supremacy.

But whenever we tear down the edifices of such empires using tribalism, division, and coercion, we are not so much dismantling one tyrannical power as we are installing the next. Abstention from the popular push to attach esteem and stigma to any particular ethnicity or skin color doesn’t cost much. But an obstinate devotion to decency—to the universal symbols of our common humanity—was a worthy act of subversion in occupied Moravia and still is today.