Math has never looked so political.
During the Supreme Court hearings on the issue last week, many supporters of same-sex marriage posted "=" symbols in place of their profile pictures on Facebook and Twitter.
The symbols, still in use on many Facebook and Twitter accounts, look like this:
— HumanRightsCampaign (@HRC) March 27, 2013
Very quickly opponents responded with their own twists on the theme, and a few of these found their way onto the Facebook page of the Catholic Archdiocese of San Francisco.
Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone has been outspoken in his opposition to same-sex marriage. So the archdiocese social media expert, Edison Tapalla, re-posted a couple of symbols playing on the "+" symbol. Those went over without huge criticism. But when he tried "÷," on March 26 he ignited a firestorm.
Same-sex advocates posted about 320 comments in a tone so harsh that Tapalla took down the post a couple of days later. (You can a screen shot of it on this Facebook page.)
"It infuriated me," said Don Wagda, a Bay Area attorney. "I thought it was highly disrespectful when they posted the division symbol. It was the most divisive of all."
Wagda did everything he could to get the word out about the "÷," including an online petition.
But Tapalla said critics like Wagda are misreading the symbol. It included a citation of a biblical passage, Luke 12:51: "Suppose ye that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, Nay; but rather division..."
Also in Tapalla's post was a link to an article by the archdiocese spokesperson, George Wesolek, arguing that Catholics who do not accept the teachings of the church hierarchy (including on same-sex marriage) don't belong in the church.
So what was all this meant to communicate?
Tapalla said it was a comment on the sharp divisions around the issue of same-sex marriage. "It was more commenting on how people are separated," he said. "I wish that people could talk. I think we live in a world where mere disagreement is taken as hate. When you have such strong feelings on both sides, it's hard to come together and have a conversation."
It's especially hard to have meaningful dialogue on social media where comments are limited by length, he said. The reaction to his post just reinforced that view.
Wesolek, too, was taken aback by the reaction to the "÷" post. "We were slammed with some very ugly messages," he said. "It was obviously an organized attack. It's probably the same group that's been attacking us. They are very anti-Catholic and very bigoted."
But Michael Cole-Goldschwartz, spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, said the group had not responded to the parodies of the "=" campaign that its marketing director, Anastasia Khoo, dreamed up.
He noted the division symbol on the archdiocese Facebook page. "Frankly, I thought it characterized the opposition," he said.
"We're happy that our message got out and it's unfortunate that they're using this for their own anti-gay message. But it is what it is."