Tuesday, 7 February 2012

When did the middle finger become offensive?






When did the middle finger become offensive?



An American television network has apologised after pop star M.I.A. extended her middle finger during Sunday night's Super Bowl halftime show. What does the gesture mean, and when did it become offensive?


A public intellectual, expressing his contempt for a politician, reaches for a familiar gesture. He extends his middle finger and declares: "This is the great demagogue".


The episode occurred neither on a chat show nor in the salons of New York or London, but in Fourth Century BC Athens, when the philosopher Diogenes told a group of visitors exactly what he thought about the orator Demosthenes, according to a later Greek historian.


The middle finger, extended with the other fingers held beneath the thumb, is thus documented to have expressed insult for more than two millennia.


Ancient Greek philosophers, Latin poets hoping to sell copies of their works, soldiers, athletes and pop stars, school children, policemen and network executives have all been aware of the gesture's particular power to insult and enflame.


"It's one of the most ancient insult gestures known," says anthropologist Desmond Morris.


"The middle finger is the penis and the curled fingers on either side are the testicles. By doing it, you are offering someone a phallic gesture. It is saying, 'this is a phallus' that you're offering to people, which is a very primeval display."


During Sunday night's broadcast of the Super Bowl, America's most-watched television programme of the year, British singer M.I.A. extended the finger during a performance of Madonna's Give Me All Your Luvin'.


The NFL and NBC television, which broadcast the game and the halftime show, apologised.


"The obscene gesture in the performance was completely inappropriate," said Brian McCarthy, a spokesman for the NFL.


The gesture is widely known to Americans as flipping the bird, or just giving someone the finger.


The middle finger, which Mr Morris says probably arrived in the US with Italian immigrants, is documented in the US as early as 1886, when a pitcher for the Boston Beaneaters gave it in a joint team photograph with the rival New York Giants.


The French have their own phallic salute, says Mr Morris.


In performing the "bras d'honneur" (arm of honour), one raises the forearm with the back of the hand facing outward, while slapping or gripping the inside of the elbow with the other hand.


The British gesture - the two-fingered 'v' with the palm facing inward - is a "double phallus", Mr Morris says.


The middle finger's offensive meaning seems to have overtaken cultural, linguistic and national boundaries and can now be seen at protests, on football pitches, and at rock concerts across the world.


While the middle finger may historically have symbolised a phallus, it has lost that distinctive meaning and is no longer even obscene, says Ira Robbins, a law professor at American University in Washington DC, who has studied the gesture's place in criminal jurisprudence.


"This gesture is so well engrained in everyday life in this country and others. It means so many other things, like protest or rage or excitement, it's not just a phallus."


And he rejects an Associated Press journalist's characterisation of the gesture as "indecent".


"What is indecent about it? Maybe the dancing of the artist MIA was indecent, but the finger? I just don't see it."

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-16916263










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