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Pluck Yew - The Tale of the Digitus Impudicus

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It is my contention that sticking a middle finger in the air is not worthy of any sort of retaliation or punishment, and the gesture should not even be considered ‘fighting words’. In fact, gestures should be allowed unflinchingly as a First Amendment right to free speech. I will illustrate this by using examples of law, history and social observation. I will show that gestures, even combined with vulgar speech, should not be considered obscene, pornographic or illegal.

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.

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