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The Bird: Endangered Protest Symbol

I'm in favor of fining M.I.A. and Adele for flipping the bird on TV, but it's not for the reason you would think or because I'm in solidarity with the Parents Television Council, which complains that such indecent finger pointing is a shocking affront to our children.

Any kid who's ever been in a car in Miami is totally familiar with this gesture.

That's part of the problem. The flick of the finger has become so commonplace in our culture that it's at risk of losing its effectiveness. We need to protect the one-finger salute so it retains its rightful place for future generations as the ultimate attention getter. To ignore careless releases of the bird is to pluck it of all its power.

I still vividly remember learning the proper technique of The Bird on my elementary school bus, where my friend Christine weaved a pencil between my pointer and ring fingers so they could bend at mid-knuckle to frame my middle digit just so. I have perfected this technique over time, but only in dire circumstances, when the spoken word has no longer been sufficient.

Not to be confused with the forearm jerk or the chin flick, flipping the bird has been the preferred symbol of disgust of rock stars, athletes and victims of tailgaters in Western culture for centuries. It needs to remain impulsive, taboo and heart-felt – or we risk losing one of our most important non-verbal communication devices to mundane mainstream status.

The middle finger as digitus impudicus dates back thousands of years to the Emperor Caligula, whose use of his extended phalanges was well recorded. The first documentation of the bird flying in the United States was in 1886, when a baseball pitcher for the Boston Beaneaters was photographed giving it to a member of the rival New York Giants. Years later, in 1968, when North Korea released a photo of captives from the U.S.S. Pueblo, Americans immediately cheered the defiant middle fingers displayed by some of the sailors (who told the unsuspecting Koreans it was a symbol of good luck).

But recently, this proud symbol of protest has waned in power as everyone from Lady Gaga to U.S. senators to a former Spanish president has waved it about with alarming frequency.

The biggest offender: M.I.A. because, by all appearances, her public bird during this year's Super Bowl halftime show was a calculated publicity stunt, stripped of any passion, designed to increase her Google search count and upstage Madonna in front of 111.3 million viewers. If Janet Jackson's nipple was worth $550,000, surely the random skinny finger of a protest-artist-turned-commercial-hack warrants a few bucks, especially after an unscientific online poll by NPR revealed that 80% of the American public was not upset by the incident.

At least Adele had some emotion behind her bird when she flicked it after having her speech cut off during the Brit Music Awards last week. Unlike M.I.A., Adele claims her bird flew at a clear target, "the suits" who ran the show. For her passion – and the shock value of wearing an evening gown while making her gesture – Adele may deserve a pass on this one.

But we all should take more care about when we let the bird rip. Let's preserve its power to offend for the most important events in our lives. If not, we may all be reduced to grabbing our crotches, and that's just way too difficult when you're driving 70 mph on the Palmetto Expressway.