Thu
Jun 5 2014 2:30pm

Fictional Symbols on Political Stages: Thailand Protestors Adopt Hunger Games Salute

Thailand protestors

A military coup in Thailand has led many protestors to adopt the three-fingered salute from Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series as a form of resistance to the current political state of their country. Of course, while oppression may be counted as a throughline in the situation, the specifics of the upheaval in Thailand is not solidly comparable to the dystopian future Collins created.

Instead, it is a reminder of how the symbols we find in fiction can affect our lives and the world around us.

To be clear on what is occurring: late last month, Thailand’s democratic government was overthrown in a military coup—the second coup that the country has gone through in less than a decade. The government was deposed, and General Prayuth Chan-ocha called for two days of peace talks between government officials. The talks lasted only four hours, and Prayuth announced via television that the army was seizing power. He warned the people not to protest.

But the people of Thailand are protesting and what’s more, they’ve chosen the symbol of Panem’s rebellion to communicate their dissent—a three-finger salute that District 12 offers Katniss Everdeen when she takes her sister’s place in the Games, a symbol that spreads and eventually becomes a signal in support of revolution against the Capitol. Protestors in Thailand are gathering in groups, sometimes just a few people at once, and silently showing their opposition to the new regime.

Hunger Games salute

Jonathan Jones of The Guardian has not looked kindly on the matter, insisting that the adoption of this symbol indicates a lack of political understanding on the part of the current generation of young protesters:

In an age of torched ideologies and ruined utopias, the symbols of dissent have to be newly forged, recast out of what comes to hand. What comes easiest to hand is popular culture. But do The Hunger Games or V for Vendetta really offer useful images, or does this reliance on them reveal a tragic intellectual vacuum?

Images have meaning. The clenched fist of Marxist revolutionaries was not just a gesture. Behind it lay a history of revolution going back to 1789 and a huge body of serious political thought from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte to the writings of Antonio Gramsci. But what does it actually mean to claim allegiance to The Hunger Games?

In essence, Jones believes that anyone who would look to pop culture narratives for appropriate political symbols is living the life of a philistine—that the gesture adopted by the people of Thailand has no history in real world political uprisings, and therefore no true meaning. He talks of the Hunger Games in terms of “teenagers’ sensibilities,” conveniently ignoring the fact that teenagers are being affected in Thailand as well, and also have the right to be heard. It’s paternalistic at best, and at worst completely dismissive of the actual risk these protestors are taking by making their dissent public. By all means, judge them for looking to a book for inspiration while you are safely tucked away in another country where these issues are not currently plaguing the political landscape.

Guy Fawkes mask

Symbols are changeable things. Fiction knows this better than Jones because fiction has been lifting and appropriating symbols forever. That three-finger salute used in The Hunger Games? The Scouts have been using it for decades. The salute Vulcans use on Star Trek while telling someone to “Live Long and Prosper” is actually a Jewish symbol that Leonard Nimoy picked out because he remembered learning it in his grandfather’s synagogue as a boy. Farscape’s Peacekeepers tack up banners emblazoned with famous Soviet propaganda art. We don’t typically criticize fiction for this—why would we criticize others for looking to fiction in return?

This is not a new trend either. Jones himself takes a jab at the Guy Fawkes mask being re-popularized by the V for Vendetta film, then commandeered as a symbol of rebellion by Occupy Wall Street and Anonymous. Now, say what you want about that movie and how it relates to Alan Moore’s original work—it is not difficult to understand why people might have found that narrative moving. Nor is it difficult to see what these movements actually mean by appropriating V’s mask; obviously, the individuals involved do not think they are living in the same world as those fictional characters. But they can see the places where a connection might be made, where the sentiments align. And by taking on that symbol, they are giving a clear signal to everyone who sees it. They are letting the world know how they feel about what is happening around them.

Peacekeeper symbol

Guess that’s just not enough for some people. Because every political movement must communicate with symbols drawn from the politico-historical past only! Clearly the Great Plains Tar Sands Resistance group should have seen their folly when they used the Mockingjay as a symbol of protest against Devon Energy. They were arrested for their trouble, but since their choice of imagery lacks any real-world political connection, it’s just not meaningful or evocative enough to warrant our attention, right? And 1960s counterculture should have stopped spray painting “Frodo Lives” under bridges because Tolkien definitely did not approve of these layabout hippie kids aligning themselves with his work in that way.

Thing is, we do this all the time. Whether it’s jokes about President Obama being Spock, or calling a defense initiative “Star Wars” when we find it unrealistic, we are constantly linking the political and the fictional. There is nothing automatically bad or strange or vacuous about this impulse, and it doesn’t prove that we lack political savvy or have been deluded into thinking that our lives are actually similar to the Hunger Games. It means that when something moves us, and has meaning for us, we sometimes make it part of our identity. And we do that in tiny non-political ways as well; getting a tattoo of Superman’s “S,” wearing a Ravenclaw scarf, naming your cat Buffy the Mouse Slayer. Claiming that there is something inherently wrong about this is flat out denying what people do best. We see patterns, as a species. We like to make things connect.

Vulcan Salute

That said, I hope that the protestors in Thailand stay safe and that their chosen symbol works well for them as they make their stand. If they’ve chosen it, it means something to them, and that should be enough for anyone.


Emily Asher-Perrin is a staff writer at Tor.com. You can bug her on Twitter and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

14 comments
Wes S.
1. Wes S.
IIRC, Alan Moore himself believed that the Wachowskis had usurped V for Vendetta for a political meaning he didn't intend it to have; I gather Moore intended it to be a satirical commentary on Thatcher-era Britain; the Wachowskis were supposedly more interested in Bush-bashing.

(Whatever the political intent behind V for Vendetta might have been, all I got from the film version was a headache. But YMMV. )

OTOH, my car sports an "I Aim To Misbehave" sticker in the rear window, which I figure sums up both my fandom and my politics quite nicely. :D
Wes S.
2. Herb258
Well said.

(I would mock Jones for taking Marxism seriously, but tens of millions murdered is nothing if not serious.)
Wes S.
3. ducky
I'm taken aback that someone would criticize their methods when these people are showing enormous courage in their opposition. I can't do anything to really help, but I'm sending out all the hope I can.
Birgit
4. birgit
In the past, people quoted from Greek myths or the Bible because those were the stories everyone knew. Now people quote different stories because they are more well known. Why should those stories be inferior just because they are newer?
Sky Thibedeau
5. SkylarkThibedeau
@2 I thought it was Jacobinism he was speaking of. We all know what happened when the Tumbrils of the Revolution started moving and Madame DeFarge's Knitting Circle met.
Wes S.
6. Amy E.
@3: me too.
@4, exactly!

i take a slight bit of consolation in the fact that the topmost handful of comments on Jones' commentary post (as well as a smattering of examples i noted as i skimmed further) also mentioned that his view is not large enough to actually GET what's going on. (some mentioned this more kindly than others)
alastair chadwin
7. a-j
Good piece. Jones' article is quite remarkable in its crass dismissal of people who are risking their lives to resist tyranny and goes to show how badly some cultural commentators have let themselves become divorced from the political and social realities around them. Ironically, that was one of the bits I got from the Panem sequences in the Hunger Games books.
Rafael
8. Ryamano
As far as pop culture and protests goes, nothing to this day beats what happened in Turkey, with young people writing in graffiti "You're going against a generation that grew up beating the police in Gran Theft Auto". And then one of the protesters stole a bulldozer from somewhere and started chasing the police...

That's... that's life. Imitating art.
Rafael
9. Ryamano
And I'm still waiting for someone, somewhere to use Sid Meyer's Alpha Centauri quotes or symbols in their protests. Heck, the speech by Commissioner Pravin Lal seems prescient of what's happening today with the internet:

As the Americans learned so painfully in Earth's final century, free flow of information is the only safeguard against tyranny. The once-chained people whose leaders at last lose their grip on information flow will soon burst with freedom and vitality, but the free nation gradually constricting its grip on public discourse has begun its rapid slide into despotism. Beware of he who would deny you access to information, for in his heart he dreams himself your master. Commissioner Pravin Lal, "U.N. Declaration of Rights"

We must dissent.
Rafael
10. Ryamano
And regarding pop culture and revolutions, this Jones fellow must read what sparked the Belgian secession from the Netherlands in 1829: a play at the opera, depicting the struggle between Naples nationalists and the Spanish in the 17th century. People just saw the similarities in their situation regarding the piece of fiction they were seeing (very loosely based on real facts regarding another country in another time), and boom, revolution.
Rafael
11. Ryamano
Sorry to post the 4th time in a row, but this Jones fellow must put his criticism as well to Vladimir Lenin. Lenin was very much influenced in his youth by a novel called "What is to be done", written by Nikolai Chrnichevsky. He was so much influenced by it, that he named a pamphlet he wrote in 1902 "What is to be done".

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/What_Is_to_Be_Done%3F_(novel)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/What_Is_to_Be_Done%3F

So, the "current generation of young protesters" should also include Vladimir Lenin.
Carlos RodrĂ­guez
13. cecalli
Every action we do will live a mark in the world. If its art in any form of expression it will go deeper in culture. Prentending that something we see, read or anything else can't be used for any reason different from its original purpose would be innocent. The 12 district signal works here, even if anyone doesn't like it, because it fills a gap where the people that represent the movement feels identified with it. Therefore its original meaning get transformed into a new symbol, independent of its origins.
Seona Bellamy
14. Seona13
Ryamano@9: I love you. That's so perfect! I'd forgotten how many gems of that sort SMAC actually had.

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