Letters: Is The Middle Finger Offensive?

Audie Cornish and Robert Siegel read emails from listeners about whether giving the middle finger is offensive.

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It's time now for your letters about a certain gesture. During the Super Bowl halftime show, British singer M.I.A. gave the middle finger to the roughly 114 million people who had tuned in.

So, yesterday, we turned to Ira Robbins, law professor at American University, for a history of this particular insult, which can be traced back at least to the days of Greek playwright Aristophanes. As for this latest public finger flipping, Robbins told us he didn't find it that offensive.

IRA ROBBINS: I don't see it as obscene. I didn't see it as risque. Maybe the dancing during the halftime show was risque, but I don't see the use of the finger as a...


Well, many of our listeners disagreed. Barbara Mott(ph) of Knoxville, Tennessee, writes this: Obscenity is defined by culture. In East Tennessee, it's still a dangerous expression. Flip a bird and be ready to fight or run.

CORNISH: And Linda Gly(ph) of McKinleyville, California, writes, I will retain the right to use the finger as a suitable substitute for the F word when words can't be heard. It is as obscene as the F word and should not be on television until that word can also be used.

SIEGEL: And Fernando San Campiano(ph) of Jacksonville, Florida, writes, perhaps Professor Robbins thinks of Aristophanes when an angry motorist shows him the middle finger, but to the rest of us it represents nothing but aggression and vulgarity.

CORNISH: Please keep sending those letters. Just go to NPR.org and click on Contact Us.

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