Views expressed in opinion columns are the author's own.
The Confederate flag students found etched into a bathroom in Somerset Hall earlier this month was clearly a symbol of hatred. The flag is unambiguous in its meaning. It's unlikely anyone agonized over describing the sketch as yet another hate bias incident. But not all hate symbols are so clear. What if, instead of the Confederate flag, the perpetrator carved Pepe the Frog into the stall?
Pepe was not originally created to be racist. Early memes featuring the frog were innocent enough, but the image rocketed in popularity among white supremacists. Eventually, the meme's racist variations dominated. However, despite its unsavory connotations, many versions of the meme are still used in non-bigoted contexts. That leaves Pepe in a gray area: A meme that seems perfectly benign to its creator will appear hateful to some of its viewers. The creator is unintentionally complicit in spreading hatred. Public discourse cannot survive alongside the casual use of hate symbols.
Pepe isn't the only symbol stolen by hate groups. The swastika, the world's most gut-wrenching, sickening symbol of hatred, was originally a religious symbol representing good fortune. But now it is impossible to disentangle its original meaning from the atrocities it represents. Many hate symbols share a similar history. They weren't created to promote hatred, but they arrived at that identity after years of reappropriation by bigots.
The original intent is irrelevant. The only thing that matters is the pain such symbols inflict. Anyone who uses the symbol is partly responsible for that pain.
In the past, it took hate groups years to steal images and contort them into symbols of violence and bigotry. In recent years, however, the process has dangerously accelerated. The last few years of mainstream bigotry and the rise of online extremist communities have primed the country for a total breakdown in memetic communication. New memes are snatched up and reappropriated by countless factions as soon as they are created. Some of those factions inevitably use the new image to further a message of hate. As the meme spreads, its meaning doesn't just evolve. It shatters. Eventually the symbol loses its originally intended meaning. Different communities end up using the same words to speak different languages.
This fragmentation only aids the spread of hateful ideologies. Social media users often unintentionally spread hatred by being ignorant of an image or phrase's history and context. Regardless, they are playing into the hands of the far right. I've known many friends who used the ableist slur "REEEE" without even realizing the word expresses something other than frustration.
Without context, their usage may have seemed innocent, but nothing is free of context. In public debate, it doesn't matter whether they intended to be offensive. Their use of the word still furthers the cause of bigots. The far right doesn't use their arsenal of memes just to spread their message. They seek to infect all discussion with toxicity. Debate is impossible if both sides inadvertently spew hatred.
That is the role of Pepe: to make innocent speech toxic and toxic speech acceptable. If you don't know about its racist history, it's just a cartoon frog. But the cartoon frog has power. Recognizing hatred and using symbols carefully is the only way to reclaim online discourse. Next time you're about to post a "harmless" meme, you should ask yourself just how harmless it really is.
Nate Rogers is a freshman computer science major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.