Missing the Signals

Birds of a feather can only flock together if they recognize each other.

It’s official. I’m completely and utterly out of the loop. Pop culture now passes me by without even a how-do-you-do, so as you can imagine, I overlook the less popular culture entirely. I’m so not “with it” that you might say that I’m without it. Groovy.

I was reminded of this the other day when I was joking around in my Birds Aren’t Real Facebook group. (I recently found these irreverent misinformationists, and I blogged about them here.) I joined the group because this is a tribe that I want to be a part of. But most of them are much, much younger than I am.

My first post to the group said, “OMG, I have two plastic flamingos in my front yard. Should I worry about anything besides my lack of taste?”

This garnered 63 hilarious comments. Responses ranged from things like: “This signals to the birds that you’re an ally, so maybe they’ll reduce their surveillance. I suggest you put out even more!” to “Do their eyes light up at night?” to “Sure, they act plastic now…” to “Once they’re done charging, you’re toast.”

Like I said, fun group. But scattered in amongst those responses were some that said, “You do realize that pink flamingos in the front yard are a sign that you’re a swinger or a dogger, right?”

First of all, I’m so out of touch that I had to look up dogger. (Do your own homework.) And while looking into this, I discovered that yes, apparently these flamingos are an actual silent signal that these two subcultures use to attract like minded individuals. Mind you, no one has ever hit on me in my front yard while I’m elbow deep in the potting soil, and I’m grateful for that. But yeah… pink flamingos are not just a symbol of irreverent tackiness as I had been lead to believe.

All of this had me thinking about subcultures in general, and how people in these groups signal to one another. First of all, I’d like to point out that I really hate the term subculture. Just because you are in the minority, that does not mean you’re inferior. And even if your lifestyle might be shocking to the general population, to each his own, I say, as long as no one is getting hurt. It’s okay to live on the fringes of society. But for ease of understanding, I’ll use the word in this post, even as I slightly grit my teeth.

If you are a member of a group that gets persecuted, it’s important to be able to find other believers without sticking your neck out too far. There has to be a way to find one’s tribe without exposing that tribe to further ridicule. Birds of a feather can only flock together if they recognize each other. This has been the case for centuries.

The first subculture symbol that springs to mind for me is Ichthys, the fish symbol that indicates Christianity. Christians used this symbol to find one another while they were being persecuted by the Roman Empire. You can learn about its complicated and fascinating symbology here, but suffice it to say that it was much safer to carve a simple fish on a wall than it was to stand up in the coliseum and shout, “Hey! I’m a Christian! Want to hang out after we watch all these other Christians get devoured by lions? I’ll bring the guacamole! Anyone? Anyone?”

Subculture signals can also be transmitted by the way you dress or wear your hair to the slang you use, right down to the good old fashioned secret handshake.

Personally, I tend to enjoy people who zig while the rest of the world zags. I see nothing wrong with deviating from the well-trodden path. I definitely approve of those who resist evil and the politics thereof. I love all things unique.

Having said that, I strongly disapprove of violence or terrorism. If your subculture is promoting violence, it’s going way too far. My drawbridge gets tagged by gang symbols that are incomprehensible to me, but I’m sure they make perfect sense to gang members. I try to have these symbols removed quickly, because I don’t want to encourage gangs in their violent activities. I once witnessed someone get stabbed on my bridge. I’d kind of like to avoid that in the future.

But I suspect that all of us gravitate toward those who think and act like we do. The increased polarization in this country proves it. And if you think and act in a way that does not fit in with the status quo, it’s helpful to be able to find others like you without public shame or ridicule.

Some subculture symbols started off as obscure, and as the group gained acceptance and/or size, these symbols became more well known. I’m thrilled that the rainbow flag has permeated the broader culture. I think this indicates that we are maturing as a society and realizing that love harms no one. But on the other hand, it makes me sick that so many people feel comfortable displaying symbols of hate such as MAGA hats and skinhead skulls and Nazi flags and confederate flags and all the symbols you can find on the hate symbols database.

I’m sure there are symbols, good, bad, and indifferent, all around me. It makes me wonder what I’m seeing that I’m not really seeing. It makes me want to know more. But it isn’t as if you can Google, “What are the secret symbols of xyz that they don’t want you to know about” and get any reliable results. That must make it awfully hard for someone who feels like an outsider and wants to find similar outsiders. How do you first break into a group if you think you’re all alone?

Here’s hoping you’ve found your niche, dear reader. Here’s hoping you have some form of fellowship that allows you to use your unique force for good. We all deserve that.

And by the way, since I know you’ll ask, yes, the flamingos are still in my yard. I don’t really care what the neighbors think. At the very least, I know how to smile, say no thank you, and more power to you.

Sometimes a plastic flamingo is just a plastic flamingo. But not always.

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