A Nazi salute? It depends. What was the intent?
Who needs hypotheticals? Here, what we have — at least, if you listen to the principals and their various positions — a real live instance of calling your dog “boy” within ear shot of a hyper-sensitive elderly black man.
Greek midfielder Giorgos Katidis earned a lifetime ban from the Greek national team after celebrating a late, game-winning goal for club team AEK Athens with what was deemed a Nazi salute. Katidis, a 20-year-old, claims he had no clue the gesture had any sort of meaning, and that he was simply pointing to a teammate in the stands.
Ignoring the error in the headline — a Nazi salute is only a Nazi salute if it’s a salute given to Nazis or Nazism; otherwise it’s an arm position that merely looks like a Nazi salute, that is, it shares a similar iconographic signifier — what those of us with a concern about how language and meaning are corrupted to collectivist, often-times fascistic or authoritarian ends need seize upon here is the word “deemed.” For something to be “deemed” — in this case, a Nazi salute — there needs to be someone or a group of someones to do the deeming. And then the question becomes, who gets to control what was meant.
On the one hand, Katidis denies that he meant the raised hand as a Nazi salute; and he spent the day on Twitter denying he is either racist or fascist. On the other hand, per the Daily Mail, we learn that the Hellenic Football Federation is the body who did the “deeming” — that is, that they are the body responsible for giving Katidis’ raised arm its official, public meaning, based on their own interpretation of the gesture, an interpretation that one images was itself pressured by all sort of extra-linguistic considerations, from wanting to distance themselves from the predictable onslaught by outraged victim groups, to desiring to show that they are as tough on (supposed) racism as any sport Federation in the world:
The Hellenic Football Federation announced the punishment in a statement today, saying the action was ‘a profound insult to all victims of Nazi atrocities” and they condemned it “unequivocally and categorically’. The Federation said ban was unanimous decision from the executive committee at an extra-ordinary meeting.
To claim, as the Federation does in it statement, that the gesture by Katidis amounts to “a profound insult to all victims of Nazi atrocities” is perhaps a truism, though I tend to think they overstate the case somewhat, the remaining victims of Nazi atrocities being perhaps rather dubious, I suspect, that a 20-year-old Greek soccer player took the opportunity of celebrating a game-winning goal to salute Hitler.
The real question, though, is does it matter at all that victims of Nazi atrocities were profoundly insulted if indeed the gesture was, as Katidis claims, merely something that looked like a Nazi salute, much in the same way a collection of egret tracks can accidentally look like language? That is, if egret tracks only come to count as language because some confused interpreter determines to see them that way (egrets not being known for their affinity with human coding systems), then by the same linguistic logic, raising your arm after scoring a goal — when it was never your intent to praise a genocidal National Socialist — only becomes a Nazi salute when some interpretive consensus declares it one and has the power to enforce a penalty on the original signifier, irrespective of the sign itself as signified into language by its author.
This is a form of scapegoating. Tied to collectivism. Tied to the idea of “democratizing” interpretation.
Here, a young man’s livelihood has been essentially snuffed out and his character permanently besmirched on what may be a panicked, PR cost-benefit analysis by a Federation looking to protect its brand from others it believes will seek to press the PC outrage course.
All because an arm gesture could come to mean a Nazi salute, depending on who is given the power to make that determination.
Katidis, the “author,” denies it was any such thing (he claims ignorance of the gesture, and says he was pointing to an injured teammate in the stands) and a look at the raw video suggests he was celebrating in a way many soccer players do; the Hellenic Football Federation, alternately, has determined that the gesture itself means what it could potentially mean to someone else, regardless of what Katidis intended. Or, if you prefer, the HFF has actively intended to view the gesture as a Nazi salute for purposes of dishing out punishment, their basis for the decision being merely, from what I can tell, that it looks similar to a Nazi salute — something that can be said of many arm gestures at some point in their trajectory.
The reason I continue to insist that we seek to determine meaning by referring back to authorial intent is that, not only is it the only linguistically coherent way to claim that what you are doing is interpreting a particular set of signs produced by some other agency, but because the alternative grants the power to a mob of supposed “interpreters” who may have any number of motivated reasons to map onto another’s text their own new text — all while pretending that their own intent, which is responsible for creating that new text, can then be attributed back to the original author.
Signifiers — like marks on a page, egret tracks in the sand, the temporary position of an arm, the use of an arc — don’t in and of themselves carry any inherent meaning. When they operate within a specific context — like, say, attempted communication — they are given their meaning when they are turned into signs, which happens on both ends of the communication chain. But if what we think we are doing is interpreting a text produced by some other sentient agency, the goal must of necessity be to try to divine the meaning of the original sign, to decode it in its signifier stage in order to properly re-encode it on the receiving end in a way that best matches the author’s original intent.
Helpful to the interpretation process are things like convention and code: they signal to those interpreting that what they are dealing with is likely language, and that they are being asked to confront it as such. But intent is what determines meaning — and when we agree in principle and as a matter of institutionalized practice to hand over our meaning to some motivated collective, we are handing over our autonomy to some group who we then must trust will treat us benevolently and fairly.
And I don’t know about you, but if I’m calling “here, boy!” to my dog, and some elderly black gentleman decides that he now has the ammunition to accuse me of racism — for whatever his reasons, be they sincere or otherwise motivated — I am not willing to cede my meaning to some mob looking to showcase their own self-righteousness and outrage at my expense.
As Chris Christie is likely learning just now.
Is it possible Katidis is a Nazi sympathizer and was actually offering up a Nazi salute? Of course. But to determine that — particularly given the severity of the punishment — fair, conscientious interpreters would seek to determine what Katidis himself meant by the gesture. Extratextually, has he had any history of making racist statements? Any history of Nazi fetishizing? Any history of anti-semitism, or a dislike of Gypsies?
Instead, the easiest — and laziest, and most pernicious — route is simply to deem something that can be construed as an insulting gesture an insulting gesture, lay the blame with the person you’re accusing of intending that gesture, and wash your hands of the whole thing, having dished out punishment to avoid having to the hard work of suggesting to potentially outraged identity groups that they simply got it wrong.
Risk-aversion. Cheap grace. These are the rewards for adopting leftwing hermeneutics.
But these linguistic moves are inherently totalitarian. And they are linguistically incoherent. Conservatives, classical liberals, libertarians, originalists, et al., should never cede the validity of such attempts at what amounts to linguistic theft. No matter what political side those attempts are coming from.