On the Middle Finger's Place in Modern Culture

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I’d been on a customer-service call, trying to sort out an incorrect bill, when it happened. The conversation left me irate and exasperated, so as soon as I slammed down the receiver, I couldn’t help myself: Against my better judgment, I flipped off the phone.

Naturally, the person on the other end of the line couldn’t see my middle finger, which was probably for the best. But something about it still felt cathartic — and, in a strangely modern way, fitting for our times.

Sticking your middle finger at someone — also known as flipping the bird or, in George W. Bush’s long-ago words, doing the “one-finger victory salute” — has been around even longer than maddening bill collectors. Historians trace it back to ancient Greece, where it was both a phallic symbol and a dis. (To express his displeasure, one photosphere stuck out his digit at an orator.)

In his 2008 Law Review article “Digitus Impudicus: The Middle Finger and the Law," Ira Robbins, American University professor of criminal law, wrote, “The Romans interpreted the middle finger gesture as an abrasive and insulting expression…The gesture became so abhorrent that Augustus Caesar banished an actor from Italy for giving the finger to an audience member who hissed at the actor during a performance.” Here in the States, the finger made its rebel-yell debut in 1886, when a pitcher for the Boston Beaneaters, Charles "Old Hoss" Radbourn, flipped off a photographer during a team shoot.

Giving the finger is still an inherently crude gesture, but something odd has happened in the last few years. Maybe it’s a reflection of our increasingly vulgar, coarsened discourse, or maybe it’s just that nothing much is shocking anymore, but as we’ve seen this year, the finger has gone almost mainstream. During the summer Olympics, Canadian swimmer Santo Condorelli routinely gave his dad the finger in the bleachers as a sign of affection. A German vice chancellor flipped off neo-Nazi protesters in public, and Beyoncé flashed it in her Lemonade video and onstage with her dancers during her current Formation tour.

What was surprising about these incidents wasn’t the action. It was the absence of reaction. A few years ago, M.I.A., always happy to be provocative, flashed her middle finger onstage during Madonna’s Super Bowl half-time show. The Super Bowl is family-friendly network entertainment, sure, but from the widespread condemnations, you’d think she’d committed a far worse sin than, say, lip-synching at the Super Bowl. By comparison, I rarely saw any takedowns of Beyoncé or Condorelli. Hell, a trailer for Sarah Jessica Parker’s new HBO series Divorce includes a scene in which her character and her ex (played by Thomas Haden Church) angrily storm off from each other while flipping each other off — and with both hands. Welcome to contemporary sitcom hijinks!

Even as the middle finger becomes more prevalent in the culture, when is the right time for an angry guy to flash it? Robbins, one of the country’s leading authorities on the finger, feels there are two places the middle finger should never be flashed: public schools and courtrooms. “These are places,” he says, “in which, for all sorts of reasons, the public interest mandates decorum.”

More important, be aware of who, exactly, you’re flipping off. The gesture itself is protected by the First Amendment, but that hasn’t stopped cops in New Jersey, New York, and Oregon from arresting or detaining people after they give the finger to police. And even if it’s not a cop, always size up the person you’re flipping off first.

But as I learned, it has its place — in moderation. “Many times people will use it when they lose control,” says Robbins. “Or in a situation when they can’t come up with the words to express what they want — like when another driver cuts you off and you want to let him know you’re angry but you have your window up. It still has that bite.” Even, and especially, on the phone, when no one else can see you.