|"Pluck Yew - The Tale of the Digitus Impudicus" is an excerpt from Life Bits and Other Chunks: Memoirs of an untrained man, by Stephen L. Wilson.
Available at Smashwords, Amazon and Nook. All rights reserved. © 2013.
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How is it that a mere gesture is offensive, anyway? The perpetrator is not physically contacting the gesture recipient. The gesture itself can be open to vast, if not countless interpretations. Even if the meaning of the gesture is mutually understood, and it is intended to be interpreted as a bodily manifestation of an insult, should the aggressor be subject to penalty on behalf of the recipient, or society in general?
The answer to the strength of the gesture lies in history. Dating back to the Greeks or even before, the middle finger, for example, is represented historically as meaning to be an insult. Aristophanes, the ancient Greek comic dramatist, mentions Diogenes using it as an insult to Demosthenes. The Romans had a name for it – “Digitus Impudicus” – the “Impudent Finger”.
Later legend and storytelling myth has it that a variation of the gesture was used during the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. English bowmen used the index and middle finger to draw their deadly bows against the French. Myth has it that the English called the action of firing arrows “Plucking Yew”, since their longbows were made of that wood. The French, humiliated by these arrogant English bowmen, boldly announced that they were going to cut off the two fingers of any English bowman they captured. When the French failed to capture a single English bowman, the English taunted them by holding up their respective fingers and shouting, “We can still pluck yew!” Even in Europe today the two fingers in a “V” shape has the same meaning as the middle finger has in the States. Story has it that people have modified the gesture to what it is today in the United States; a solitary middle finger. The words “Pluck Yew” have apparently been modified a bit, as well.
Globally, there are many non-verbal gestures that, while not offensive in the United States, are considered very offensive in other countries. For example, the American “A-OK” sign, with a circle comprised of the index finger and thumb, with the other fingers up, is considered insulting in Italy and Denmark. It is also considered to be an obscenity in Guatemala, Paraguay and Brazil. Another example is the “thumbs-up” gesture, considered to be positive body language in the States, but is considered to be an obscenity in the Middle East and Nigeria.
Several important and famous people have used such meaningful body language to emphasize a point. The middle finger was used by President George W. Bush in response to environmentalists during the G8 summit. He called it his “one-finger salute”. Any simple web search will reveal that Britney Spears, Courteney Cox, Johnny Depp, and even Justin Timberlake’s mom all gave the bird to the paparazzi. Many have seen the globally famous picture of Johnny Cash, big right finger straight up at the camera. There are surely a multitude of others.
Other important and famous figures who have used strong body gestures other than the Roman-monikered digitus impudicus include former Prime Minister of England, Tony Blair, who was caught giving the highly offensive British “wanker” gesture in an old photograph of him during his college days at Oxford.
Although not usually headline news, there have been past examples of unwarranted punishment towards this use of a common gesture. On October 25th, 2001, a man named Robert Lee Coggin was driving down a street in San Antonio, Texas, and came behind a person who was driving under the speed limit. Coggin flashed his lights, in an attempt to speed the motorist along. When Coggin finally was able to maneuver around the slow vehicle, he flipped off the driver. The driver, a jailer for the county, called 911 and reported the incident as reckless driving. Coggins was pulled over, and, after some discussion with the responding officers, was cited with “disorderly conduct – gesture”. Coggins plead ‘not guilty’, and was subsequently determined to be guilty, and was fined $250. He then fought the verdict by taking the case to the Texas State Court of Appeals. The court overturned the verdict on grounds that he wasn’t charged with reckless driving, indicating no road rage, and that the gesture was not considered obscene, as there was no accompanying threatened or actual violence that would identify the act as a breach of peace. The court also referred to Cohen v. California as a legal precedent.
Another legal example can be found in the case of Hackbart v. The City of Pittsburgh, et al. On 4/10/06, the plaintiff, David Hackbart, was attempting to parallel park, and another driver cut him off. Hackbart flipped off the second driver. At that moment, he heard someone behind him say, “Don’t flip him off”, at which point Hackbart hung a bird towards the voice behind him. It turns out that the voice belonged to police sergeant Brian Elledge, of the Pittsburgh police department. Hackbart was cited with disorderly conduct. The judge found Hackbart guilty, and fined him $119.75. Hackbart appealed, and not only had the case overturned, but won court costs, compensatory damages, and punitive damages against Officer Elledge, for, among other reasons, breach of his First Amendment rights.
In the case of the middle finger, this “digitus impudicus”, we have a rich history of use as an insulting gesture, a common understanding of its place among international rude gestures, a social acceptance of its perceived meaning, and examples of its use leading to the citation of people who use it. It would seem that society has made its statement – the offensive finger should never again be used, and all who may use it must also suffer the fates of the law. Why would any decent and moral citizen have any reason to use this offensive gesture, anyway?
The First Amendment allows us the freedom to express ourselves, as Americans, in almost any manner we choose. We hear and see graphic lyrics and images. We know about various ways in which speech can be the only possible way there is for a person to feel validated and to be heard. We know about people who bravely express themselves, even though the penalty of doing so is evident and understood to be forthcoming. We have learned about how the law is continually attempting to pin down elusive aspects with regard to what constitutes free speech as opposed to obscene behavior.
As far as I am concerned, a simple gesture should not be considered inciteful or threatening in and of itself. Sure, the middle finger gesture is rooted in history as a graphic display of displeasure towards another person. So are the protected words, “You are pissing me off” or “I think you are an asshole”. In situations where a person is at a loss for words, or while driving, or other times when the spoken word cannot be heard, they should still be allowed to communicate thoughts and feelings to another person. Sure, the recipient of the speech may not like the speech, but in the case of a gesture, that is just too bad. We are allowed, as Americans, to express ourselves in any civil and legally defined way, even if it is crass, rude, ignorant or juvenile. Why should a police officer, who is in a definite position of power, punish someone who is maybe being rude, but not illegal? This, to me, is an abuse of power designed to persecute someone with different beliefs than the offended officer, and must not be allowed in any case. In fact, if the case is overturned, I believe that the officer should be liable for as much as possible, since his or her actions led to the wasted time and resources of an otherwise busy and burdened legal system.
People may argue that we are a civilized society, and as such must continue in our efforts to progress above such uses of gestures. I argue that as far back at least as the days of Shakespeare and the divided classes of ‘groundlings’ and noblemen, privileged society has made attempts to stifle the language and speech of those social tiers less fortunate. It seems to me that this stifling is in an attempt to encourage an understanding among the lower classes that there is a ‘proper’ manner of conduct, and any other conduct unbecoming will be considered ‘low-class’. Sometimes this may be in an attempt to raise the lower classes above their meager status, but I suspect that on the whole it has more to do with affirming and justifying the rank of the privileged socialite. After all, the person in position to make such judgment calls as to what is to be considered socially rude has the power in the society.
As a result, I believe that the privileged socialite must be exposed to the reality of the life of the lower class, however vulgar. This is an attempt to raise the elite tiers to an even more profound state of social awareness, and to maintain the culture of the history of the lower class.
As recently as the frontier days of the U.S., when Native Americans were being assimilated to the European invaders and their culture, many customs and practices of the Native Americans were scorned by the more powerful white people. Many practices and customs were considered ‘savage’, ‘vulgar’ and ‘low-class’. Although this mentality has gradually changed over time, it is too late for many of the Native American cultures, as entire tribes have vanished completely. We will never have the opportunity to hear their history, even if our culture and society progresses to the point where the elites treasure the lower class culture as much as the lower class does.
Until then, by God, the “lower-class” should be able to display their perceived vulgarity and ignorance in any way that is not harmful or threatening to another human, no matter how unrefined, or how esteemed the position of the offended elite.
Besides, any moral prudence placed on today’s society is a mockery, and quite laughable. Our society is in an unprecedented state of moral degradation, as exemplified by the continually shocking lyrics of modern music, and the extreme subjects in some of today’s highly offensive artwork (‘Piss Jesus’ and ‘Holy Virgin Mary’ come to mind as recent examples). Much of this type of art is upheld by elite socialites as relevant art, which means that, once again, the privileged minority within society pick and choose which moral equivalents the rest of society should follow, and which ones are to be relegated to the lower class as vulgar and beneath them. If I ever have the opportunity to meet any of the meatheads who think that some of this garbage is relevant art, I should lawfully be allowed to express my disgust with a digitus impudicus or two, and no social attempt at retribution. After all, isn’t free speech free speech? Any artist with the grapes to call dung “art” should have the fortitude to endure a couple of “Pluck Yews” for the sake of his or her art.
The fact that many celebrities and famous people feel the need to use the middle finger to punctuate their feelings should be evidence that this gesture has become an accepted standard by which modern humans may communicate. It is clear to me that the intent of the gesture has its place within society as a meaningful expression of disgust, contempt or frustration, and should be used as such so that others may know the feelings of the user of the gesture. The fact that otherwise intelligent people should stoop to such a ‘low class’ version of communication tells me that, in some situations, there is no other speech available that can convey such an exact message in such a brief moment. There should be no offense taken. The gesture, while directed at a person, does no actual harm to the person. In fact, an intelligent person should not feel harmed or threatened by such a gesture or mode of speech, and instead should be aware that the person giving the gesture is experiencing a moment of stress and possibly anger. This being the case, an intelligent person receiving the gesture should be more compassionate and understanding of the feelings behind the gesture, instead of selfishly feeling victimized by the speech.
The idea of a gesture being punishable by law is ludicrous. Aren’t laws put into place to protect citizens within a society? What safety is being compromised by the simple use of a bodily gesture? If a person is driven to the point of violence simply because another person showed them a perfectly acceptable and otherwise decent body part, I say that the true offender is the hothead who can’t control their anger, and instead makes the conscious choice to be a social vigilante, and physically punish the gesture-giver. Who is the more juvenile or possibly mentally unstable of the two – The one who expresses their frustration, anger, or stress efficiently and effectively, with no harm or threat to another person, or the one who sees the gesture, and decides to become violent? Anyone who determines the gesture to be ‘fighting words’ is missing the point of free speech entirely. Our freedom to express ourselves trumps our freedom to become violent, if there is such a freedom. Clearly, our Constitution does not address a freedom to be violent; therefore, it stands to reason that free speech should rarely be considered ‘fighting words’, if ever.
As court case after court case has demonstrated, if a person is fined, cited or otherwise convicted simply for the act of disorderly conduct by way of flipping off someone else, the appeal is always a success. Without fail, higher appeals courts say that simply raising a finger is not against the law. This being the case, it frustrates me that these types of cases are tying up otherwise valid cases within the legal system. In all of the instances I researched, it appeared that a police officer was offended by the gesture, and therefore commenced in punishing the offender. This is not the job of a police officer. Which part of ‘serve and protect’ does this type of behavior lend itself to? None. The ego and uncontrolled response of the officer in question does not fall in line with the call of duty, and in fact should never be a part of a job by a person sworn to protect society. The instant a person does not have the capacity to ignore ignorance is the instant a person should put down their badge.
And our courts are already full of frivolous lawsuits. A police officer, and especially lower courts and legislative bodies, should know full well by now that if a person wants to appeal in these cases, the likelihood is that they will win. Not only is this not efficient government, but there is a possibility of liability in the form of damages awarded to the appellate. Is all of this necessary, when all it would have taken to circumvent this headache is a cool-headed police officer on duty on the day in question or local legislative ordinances acknowledging innocuous gestures as being lawful? Wouldn’t all of this frivolity be recognized as unnecessary if only we, as a society, decided to dismiss gestures as expressions of frustration by fellow humans, instead of acting victimized by a speech gesture?
I have a solution. In fact, there are several suggestions I have, that, if accepted, will change the way in which the middle finger is communicated, expressed, and accepted by society. It should be a law that if a person decides to utilize the gesture, that they be smiling when they administer it. It is extremely hard for people to become violent if another person is not threatening them with harm and they are smiling, no matter what gesture they are displaying.
Another answer would be to change the meaning and perception of the message of the bird. Instead of “Pluck Yew”, or any other vulgar variation, we should announce, “You are number one” or use the finger to greet people, instead of the common wave. Of course, it would take influential and famous people to spread this change of message around. For example, how profound would it be for the Pope to stand up at his next speech and flip off the crowd, both fingers up, while he announces that from now on, his followers would recognize this gesture as a symbol of peace and hope, and that anyone who views this gesture should accept it as not an offensive vulgarity, but rather a symbol of unity and strength? Or if the president, in a relevant epiphany, addressed the people of America, expressing his serious interest in making the finger a national symbol of triumph over ignorance; a symbol of the strength of the masses?
I will continue to use the finger as an educational tool, as well as an expressive social tool. I regularly flip off public cameras as I smile. I often hang a bird to a friend, while I exclaim, “You’re number one”. I prefer to flip people off instead of fight. In light of the evidence presented in this writing, I would find it hard to believe that anyone would consider a hand gesture threatening, obscene, or vulgar.