‘Make Red Hats Wearable Again’: Is it possible to reclaim symbols of hate?

Make Red Hats Wearable Again, Make Earth Cool Again, Make America Gay Again: all clever and marketable adaptions of an iconic conservative marketing ploy.

People and companies are flocking to reclaim and reinvent the red ‘MAGA’ caps – which were originally designed to promote old-fashioned, discriminatory views – into something that promotes more liberal or ironic anti-trump perspectives.

On paper this is a clever and powerful concept, just flip the meaning of a symbol used to promote views they disagree with into ones they do agree with. However, in practice, it’s hard to see how effectively this can promote a new cause, or if it simply continues to promote and give voice to the original slogan’s message.

Is it worth the effort and the potential confusion this may cause, an effective way to advertise your views?

Imagine you see someone out the corner of your eye wearing a red cap and your brain reacts with a split judgement: “oh crap a trump supporter, or a racist, or a conservative who might lecture me”.

You get a little closer and notice it’s actually a gag.

Sure, it’s clever, funny, witty, and might even be a good pun, but a pertinent question remains: how many of the people that saw it that day took the time to read it properly and be in on the joke?

Best case scenario, someone sees it from afar and becomes annoyed before reading it closely, feeling relieved and maybe having a chuckle.

But the worst case – and arguably more likely – scenario is they don’t bother to read it up close. Instead they see it for what it is, or at least what it looks to be, and it ends there.

The result? The wearer is labelled as something they directly oppose, or perhaps they even validated a passing trump supporter in their beliefs.

In any case – good reaction or bad – it’s inarguably increasing the number of red caps in the world, and from afar that’s all it looks like, more red caps.

As individuals, we don’t get to decide which symbols become significant or the meaning the public ascribes to them. Like a lot of things, it’s majority rules.

So, changing the meaning of an established symbol into something that aligns with an individual’s ideals is no easy task.

Often, this reassigning of meaning is used to support incredibly significant movements and oppose instances of intense discrimination – seen in the cases of both the Black Lives Matter movement and among LGBT+ activists.

But unfortunately, the intended feelings of empowerment and support for different movements may be overshadowed if the message isn’t immediately and distinctly visible to others.

To use an extreme example, the swastika is almost universally associated with Nazi Germany and its countless atrocities. But the symbol’s original meaning is entirely different ­– moving from a religious icon in Eurasian cultures to a symbol of divinity across numerous Indian religions and even integrated into some western cultures as a symbol of good luck.

Yet, once adopted as the logo of Aryan identity, all of these meanings were either lost or distorted.

Although information around these original meanings is accessible – and maybe even somewhat commonly known –  when one sees the symbol in public or on a person’s body or clothing, the Nazi connotations immediately spring to mind.

To liken this scenario to the well-meaning red cap from earlier, if a person walks past with a swastika tattoo any reassurance that “because it’s horizontal it really symbolises peace” is unlikely to quell the unease of onlookers.

If said person is able to explain the peace symbolism behind the tattoo, it might minimise reactions or shift opinions. But, just as with the MAGA hat from earlier, there will be countless others who would’ve made their judgement without asking for clarification.

It’s reasonable to assume the majority of people would see the tattoo, note its Nazi connotations and make an assumption about the person wearing it.

And again, it’s possible the passer by identifies with the tattoo’s perceived hateful connotations, thus reaffirming their ideas about the existence of their prejudiced and frankly hateful beliefs.

So yes, while it is a huge leap to compare a daggy cap worn by republicans to a Nazi symbol, unfortunately the ideas of transcending meaning remain the same.

Items and symbols mean what people think they mean. And, once established, these meanings aren’t easily changed.

Arguably more effective – and what’s seen in the majority of campaigns for human rights – is the creation of new symbols.

Rather than add to the sea of red caps, fill it with green ones, with rainbow flags, with black t-shirts, and with big messages. Show the true number of people that support the causes you believe in, and avoid the risk of being counted as a point to the opposing side.

Image by Rachael Sharman