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A sticky not on a desk reveals an extremist symbol.

Photo illustration by Security Management; photo by iStock

Extremism in Plain Sight: Recognizing and Responding to Symbols and Threats

What happens when evocative images make their way into the workplace? On our desks, notebooks, clothing, behind us on Zoom meetings, or on car bumpers—what does this mean for organizations? It has the potential to result in increased tensions, conflict, and even the identification of a member of an extremist organization. How does this impact the reputation of an organization or the working environment?

The prospect of responding can seem daunting, but inaction or the wrong action can be as damaging as the image itself. Using the COPE framework to help inform your policy in this area can help. According to Diana Concannon and Michael Center in “Security in Context,” the COPE framework is a simple model that applies “contextual intelligence to enhance decision making at the executive and managerial levels and on the front lines.”

We live in a world filled with visual images. According to recent research, images are central to how we interpret things, give meaning, and communicate with others. Our ability to absorb and interpret visual information is the basis of the industrial society and the information age. The meaning derived from a visual, however, is as much about the context in which we see it as it is about the image itself. Once it is removed from this context (which now is easier because of powerful editing technology) and placed within another, it can have a multiplicity of possible new meanings, found researchers in a 2017 report, Critical Studies on Terrorism. Even the most definitive, universal symbol can be disconnected from its traditional meaning and appropriated for another cause.

“The meaning derived from a visual, however, is as much about the context in which we see it as it is about the image itself.”

So, what does this mean for monitoring signs of extremism in the workplace? If the meaning is not fixed, could a symbol often associated with an extremist group be entirely innocent in another context?

The answer may be yes, given that even one of the most contentious symbols, the swastika, had a peaceful association prior to being co-opted by Nazis in the 1920s. The laurel or olive branch is another case in point and highly relevant today given that it is becoming increasingly synonymous with far-right groups. Groups such as the Proud Boys, Sons of Odin, the Atomwaffen Division, and the Aryan First use it in their symbols and or logos. The appropriation of the symbol by these and similar groups is likely linked to the use of laurel by the Nazis. As Cynthia Miller-Idriss notes in her book The Extreme Gone Mainstream: Commercialization and Far-Right Youth Culture in Germany:

“The brand Fred Perry, for example, has a long history of being used by far-right youth because of its logo—a wreath of laurel branches—evokes military insignia used by the [National Socialist German Workers’ Party] NSDAP. On some Fred Perry polo shirts, moreover, the collar has black, red, and white stripes—colours that… are popular with far-right youth for their historical significance with national movements and regimes in Germany, including the Nazis.”

The use of the laurel in a logo or symbol is not inherently racist, as the symbol is commonly used by extremist groups of a variety of political and religious persuasions. Groups like the al-Aqsa Foundation, Eela Padai (a unit or branch of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam or LTTE), Mujahadeen-e-Khalq Organization (MEK), People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in India, and the Ulster Freedom Fighters have all used it in their logos, according to Branding Terror: The Logotypes and Iconography of Insurgent Groups and Terrorist Organizations. This serves to illustrate that diverse groups often use similar symbols, despite significantly divergent ideologies or beliefs.

We should not forget that other groups also use laurel and olive branches in their symbols; for example, the United Nations uses a laurel wreath in their logo, as does Mercedes-Benz. You can probably think of many more.

Given the range of contexts in which a similar image can be used, how (or even can) organizations identify symbols or images within the workplace that might indicate an extremist threat? Is this even the question we should ask, especially given that symbols can be appropriated with significant ease (as evident in memes and the like)? Should we not be asking more nuanced questions that seek to better understand how an organization can equip its staff to have a conversation about signs, symbols, and images that employees see within an organization and may be concerned about? These skills could also be applied to other contentious issues.

The COPE framework provides an effective approach to help us do this, and to help inform the type and nature of the questions we should ask about the potential role of the visual within our organizations, as well as the responses we take. Its merits are multiple, but chief amongst them is the shared understanding of context, which makes information meaningful. Second, it is a simple but powerful framework that allows us to apply contextual intelligence to enhance decision making. Third, the four key elements of the framework— culture, organizational values, politics, and environment—all significantly influence how meaning is derived from an image.

The culture in which we are raised—our reference points—often influences the meaning we derive from images. Similarly, culture also often influences the type of images used by extremist groups. For example, popular conceptions of ancient Norse culture significantly influence the far right.

“The four key elements of the framework— culture, organizational values, politics, and environment—all significantly influence how meaning is derived from an image.”

The COPE framework applies in the context of the visual as it allows organizations or employees to react, while also ensuring they check any cultural biases that may affect their response to an image, for example. Organizations should do this to move beyond declaring workplaces as apolitical, while also claiming to promote diversity. Promoting diversity needs to come with an opportunity for peer learning, understanding, discussion, and mediation.

Using a framework such as COPE allows an organization to show they are taking active measures to both value and support diversity, manage differences, and accommodate different points of view. Adhering to this process can help organizations and employees learn about why certain images are important for some and evocative for others. This helps with peer learning, and in creating an environment that seeks to understand, rather than to close off conversation.

For example, a hypothetical multinational firm marks an employee’s first day with the company by asking them to introduce themselves to their colleagues through four images. The experience in the past had caused laughter, tears, and often healthy rivalry between competing sports fans. The exercise was a good icebreaker for new staff.

Today is Mary’s first day. Having thought about it for a while, she presents a picture of her family; one of her garden (she is a keen gardener); one of her graduation (she was the first in her family to graduate from university); and one of her grandmother holding a rug, a family heirloom (to illustrate her family’s Navajo origins).

As the fourth image goes up on the screen, murmurs can be heard in the room. A colleague stands up and says that they find the image offensive, and tensions begin to rise. Mary is dejected—how could an image of a rug, one she is so proud of, cause so much offense? This was part of who she was, her history, her culture.

An image of what Mary recognized as a traditional Navajo whirling log pattern on the rug, however, was viewed as a swastika by others. Mary had not thought of the symbol as a swastika when she looked at the rug, yet it was the only thing that the others saw.

So what do you do next?

  • Consider having a conversation with those offended and Mary, and promote a willingness to be part of a conversation to encourage peer learning and understanding.
  • Acknowledge from the outset that the conversation may be difficult and set ground rules to encourage the sharing of opinions, knowledge, and hurt.
  • Ask others within the wider company, who may have remained silent during the presentation, to be part of the conversation.
  • Prepare for the exercise by conducting prior research and select someone to facilitate the conversation constructively. Mediate where necessary, and consider culture, organizational values, politics, and environment.
  • Encourage a willingness to listen, ask questions, learn, and share.
  • Debrief after each event—get the whole group to provide feedback and make changes to this reconciliation process for the next time. This process can be applied to a range of other topics that might cause in-group tensions.
  • Always remember the shared goal is to make the workplace more inclusive, diverse, supportive, and resilient.

There is no right way to interpret an image. Their meanings can be fluid, and therefore an organisation needs to ensure any policy taken to respond to visual hate or extremism is flexible; even better if such policies can support open and honest dialogue and curiosity, which promotes diversity, inclusion, and respect.

Sheelagh Brady has more than 20 years of experience in policing and security. She began her career in An Garda Siochana, the Irish Police Force, and then moved to the international security arena, holding positions as a mission security analyst with the European Union Border Assistance Mission in Libya, senior security Information analyst, with UNDSS in Abuja, Nigeria, and analyst with the European Union Police Mission in Bosnia Herzegovina (BiH). Since 2014, she has provided security related research and risk management consultancy services for international organizations and corporations in fields such as organized crime, terrorism, and corruption. She is currently undertaking a PhD at Dublin City University (DCU).