It’s a long way to go from a frog to a hate symbol (at least for me) – Ruizhong Li

‘Pepe the Frog’ meme deemed a hate symbol by Anti-Defamation League

When I saw the title this morning, I am not sure whether I can understand what it means, even though I know every single word in this title. As I scrolled down the screen, a picture showed up:

The Deplorables

OK, well, I have to admit that the only thing I know about the picture is that the guy in the middle is Donald Trump. But, wait … what’s that frog? It looks so familiar to me. Oh! that’s the famous meme! The sad frog! As I looked back to the title, I realized that the frog is not named as “sad frog”; it’s called “Pepe the Frog”. And as I continued to read the news, I even found out that the frog was not designed as “a sad frog” at the very beginning. The design of the picture looks like adapting from the poster of The Expendables – nice mimicking, but, what does “The Deplorables” mean? These people (and the frog) are put into the same frame because they are “The Deplorables”. The literal meaning of “deplorable” is “deserving strong condemnation”, but as I continued the search, it turns out that “the deplorables,” means people who are racist, sexist, homophobic or xenophobic.

… STOP! I am overwhelmed now. The series of self-asking and self-answering process shows that several pairs of triadic (as Peirce would say) relationships are going on here. The frustrated feeling accompanies with my superficial understanding – I only know one vertex of the triangle. For example, if I was overhearing someone’s conversation, and they were talking about “Pepe the Frog”, I would probably ask a question: what is “Pepe the Frog”. And they would show me a picture, and as soon as I saw the picture, I would suddenly realize that, “Oh! It is THIS frog”. I only store the symbol (representamen) of the frog in my mind, and merely with the symbol I cannot communicate the referent (object) with people. It is the object that provide people with an interface to communicate the concept and thought (interpretant). There is no direct relation between the symbol and the referent, I think the relation between the symbol (representamen) and the referent(object) is mediated by the thought (interpertant). Since I have a wrong u nderstanding of the origin of the frog, which leads to misunderstanding the relation between the representamen and the interpretant (a relaxed frog was misinterpreted as a sad frog), let alone the relation between a wrong interpretant and the object. Therefore, establishing “correct” relation between three vertices relies upon individual’s experience. I have never seen the comic, where “Pepe the Frog” made his debut. I didn’t experience the process how “Pepe the Frog” became famous on the Internet starting from At the first time I met “Pepe the Frog”, he was already deemed “sad”. I set up a wrong relationship between the symbol in my mind, and the interpretant, and the object. Fortunately, today’s experience helped me integrate the three vertices.

However, sometimes I get lost in setting up the relationship between the three vertices because of the culture or social context. That’s why I say that it’s a long way to go from a frog to a hate symbol (at least for me). Hardly can I relate this frog meme to “White Supremacy”. As Ogden & Richard suggested, “When we speak, the symbolism we employ is caused partly by the reference we are making and partly by social and psychological factors”. We cannot get rid of the social context when communicating. Those people growing up in similar circumstances share the common ground when they are talking and the common ground has been embedded in the society structure, or institutionalized. The cognition process is intersubjective, and is generated by adding on social factors. In this case, people who grew up in America, and had a strong interest in politics and discrimination issues would easily go through the chain of sign-situation intervening between the act (making a reference) and its referent (the outcome of the act). For me, it’s a long way to go, because I know little about the both ends of the relationship, and limited by my culture circumstances, being indifferent to politics has become a normal thing in my life. That’s the reason why I think it is incredible to make such a reference.


[1] “Clinton Expresses Regret for Saying ‘Half’ of Trump Supporters Are ‘Deplorables’ –” Accessed September 29, 2016.
[2] “‘Pepe the Frog’ Meme Deemed a Hate Symbol by Anti-Defamation League – Washington Times.” Accessed September 29, 2016.