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How the Peace Sign Went From Powerful Protest Symbol to Lifestyle Motif



The signs and symbols that designate our beliefs and affiliations are slippery. While the Christian cross, the Islamic star and crescent, the Jewish Star of David, and their copyrighted, vigorously litigated corporate equivalents — swooshes, apples and targets — may prove resilient, a dizzying mix of familiar and newly minted graphic devices now compete for our dwindling attention.

These days there is no movement without messaging. Even anarchy has a brand identity, its scratchy circled A logo has migrated from your corner lamppost to a pair of Converse Chuck Taylor Anarchy-edition All-Stars. From the pink hats of the Women’s March to the red hats of the Capitol raid, rainbows to thin blue lines, salute emojis to watermelon emojis, we are navigating a thicket of improvised graphic devices.

Then there is the case of the peace sign. Originally devised in the late 1950s by the activist and designer Gerald Holtom as a symbol for the British antinuclear proliferation movement, the ubiquitous divided circle mark — derived by overlapping the flag-semaphore signals for the letters N and D to stand for Nuclear Disarmament — itself quickly proliferated as an open-source logo for global antiwar and counterculture movements.

From its inception Mr. Holtom insisted that his mark remain forever in the public domain. But without the protections of centuries-old institutional traditions or menacing cease-and-desist letters, symbols are vulnerable to appropriation. Since no one owns the peace sign, it can be leveraged for whatever by whomever. (Looking at you, Craigslist.) Even by the early 1970s, the once highly charged peace symbol was devolving into an anodyne lifestyle and fashion motif akin to a smiley face.

A highly unscientific survey of my Gen Z students and colleagues suggests that after decades of relentless commodification, younger generations may have lost the thread. The typical associations I heard — “hippie,” “Venice Beach,” “someone pretty easygoing and kind of disconnected,” “coexist” and “slacker” — sounded more like a marketer’s kombucha psychographic than a radical revolutionary.

“I take one look at the peace sign, and it feels really dated and meaningless,” Gabby Uy, a 22-year-old college junior, told me. “It reminds me of being in elementary school, and this was on everybody’s water bottles or T-shirts, and the world seemed a lot simpler than it actually is.”

“I wouldn’t consider it progressive or anything,” Ben Gertner, a 21-year-old college senior, concurred. “It’s more of an antiquated symbol of ‘just getting along’ — a kind of neutral blanket statement against war and violence.”

“When I see the symbol, my first thought is always a capitalist trinket of sorts,” said Kali Flanagan, 19. While that may sound cynical, the connection to marketing is not entirely surprising considering this is a generation whose first encounter with the mark may have been being swaddled in peace-sign-patterned onesies or fed a bowl of Annie’s Organic Peace Pasta & Parmesan before going on to wear an Urban Outfitters Peace Crochet Bucket Hat, a pair of Vans Old Skool Peace Paisley slip-ons or even a Tiffany platinum and diamond peace pendant.

One might be tempted to think that after decades in service of selling fast fashion, the peace sign is impossibly debased. But while some may dismiss it as anachronistic, others find it retains some of its original poignancy.

“It is relevant to me,” Elizabeth Olshanetsky, 23, another college senior, said. “Two parts of my identity are currently war-torn: Jewish and having lots of family in Israel, and my parents growing up in the Soviet Union and us still having family in Ukraine and Russia.” Context still matters.

Shepard Fairey, designer of the often-imitated “Hope” poster for Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, insists the peace sign still has efficacy: “I get criticism that my work is too simplistic and even propagandistic, but there is still the need to convey certain ideas quickly and efficiently. The peace sign can do that.”

Mr. Fairey isn’t convinced by the young people I talked to who dismiss the power of the symbol. “I think part of being a teenager is rejecting everything,” he said, “but that doesn’t mean you don’t actually align with the sentiment that it stands for.”

Perhaps this self-conscious oscillation between taking a stand and keeping a distance — simultaneously rejecting and aligning — is the essence of our current dilemma: We say what we need to say while signaling that we would never be so naïve as to actually say it.

Or perhaps the present state of peak branding coupled with algorithm-fueled tribalism propagates symbols meant to divide rather than unite. (Audience segmentation is the soul of marketing.) A universal peace sign seems wildly optimistic in an era where almost everything from the color of your hat to the flag on your front porch to the emoji in your Instagram post is an ideological declaration.

Or maybe given everything that has unfolded since Richard Nixon touted “peace with honor” after secretly bombing Cambodia — the bloody decades spanning Vietnam, South Africa and Rwanda, to the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq, Ukraine and Gaza, not to mention Columbine, Newtown and Uvalde — it is now almost impossible to adopt a symbol that speaks innocently about something as fraught and complex as peace. One person’s peace might be another’s capitulation.

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