Remember safety pins?!? When they were THE thing to argue about?!? Well, I drafted a note about them a few months ago, but for one reason or another never posted it. Part of the reason was that it seemed like an overly academic argument rather than something genuinely important. Oddly enough, after the shocking events of the last ten days, I feel like this symbol could be more potent than I originally thought.
I’ve left my original draft largely unchanged because it’s eye-opening to compare what was important then to what is important right now. At the end, I’ve got a few updated thoughts. Spoiler: find a pin and start wearing it ASAP.
I’d like to share two things about myself:
Thing #1: Imagine: you’re walking down the hallway at work, hurrying to a meeting you’re already late for, and just as you turn the corner, a co-worker sweeps by and throws you a quick “how’s it going?” And in that moment, 50% percent of your brain is recovering from the near-collision, and 48% is focused on how exactly you’re going to apologize for your tardiness, so the best you can manage from the remaining 2% is to reply, “not much.”
So, this happens to me pretty often (once a day?). I typically need an extra beat to assess a situation before reacting. I’m not the quickest on my feet. Combine this with a smartphone/headphones and the problem only gets worse.
Thing #2: I don’t wake up every morning thinking about how to make the world a better place on that day. I make those decisions in big chunks for the long-term (as I described in a prior post, I decided 10 years ago that climate change was the biggest problem facing this planet, and I’ve been studying/working in the renewable energy field ever since). I just find that I need time to sit and think and decide how to take action, it’s usually not part of my day-to-day. [note: it has now become part of my day-to-day]
I recognize that this mindset is born of demographic privilege – if I were a person whose life is made more difficult on a daily basis by being who I am, then I would probably be more conscious of acting to address these issues daily. But as a white, able-bodied, straight, cis, upper-middle class man with a college degree, it’s not a challenge to be myself on a day-to-day basis. I’m never called to action to defend my right to be me (and if I were, I might not know what to do in the moment – see #1 above).
Perhaps these two traits are the basis for my utter confusion regarding the war over safety pins. Yes, safety pins. For those who haven’t picked up on this piece of post-election hoopla, the safety pin was originally a symbol adopted by people in the UK after Brexit to show support for, appreciation for, and allyship with groups who were targeted by post-vote harassment.
Now, perhaps this symbol elicited a similar level of handwringing across the pond, but the suggestion that the safety pin should be adopted in the US following Trump’s election seems to have run into a strawman-shredding buzzsaw. The main argument against this action appears to be that people will wear the safety pin, think that they’ve done something great, pat themselves on the back, and move on with their lives, blindly accepting the fate of the nation over the next four years. That the pin is some sort of meek show of protest and is nothing but self-congratulatory hollow symbolism.
If I’ve learned one thing from the last two weeks [note: Nov 8 – 22 at time of original writing], it’s to never assume that my experiences and views are widely representative of the views of others. So I’m going to tell you how I process the idea of the safety pin. Try it on for size and see if it fits you too.
Key point #1: The power is not in the object, but in the act.
Key point #2: The biggest impact is internal, not external.
Putting on the pin every day is a personal, internal vow to take action and to help those around me should they need it. Especially important for me, in light of the traits I described above. First, in putting on the pin each morning, I can think about situations in which I might need to act, priming my awareness. Second, it removes the decision to act from the moment of tension and uncertainty. Instead, I can make that decision each morning in the security of the home. If the need to act arises, my mind is already tuned in and my decision has already been made.
You may be skeptical about this: “one little piece of metal will not change how people act.” Oh really? Ever heard of a wedding ring?
The mindset that sees the safety pin as external posturing to peers and/or a sign that says “holler if you need me” is one that views a wedding ring as a sign that says “already taken.” However, if you agree with my assessment of the safety pin as having its greatest impact on the wearer, you might instead see wedding ring as an intimate reminder of love for and commitment to one’s spouse.
Apart from this comparison, there’s real evidence that wearing a physical object can make one act differently. As profiled in a great episode of Invisibilia, one experiment showed that study participants who wore a doctor’s white coat while taking an intelligence test scored higher than those who did not. So, in addition to the decision-making that putting on the pin might support, wearing a symbol of allyship and action makes one more inclined to follow through, just as the doctor’s coat (a sartorial symbol of intelligence) prompted test takers to achieve higher scores. Finally, there are greater consequences to inaction when wearing the pin, such as loss of credibility among peers. You’ve made your position clear and now you have to own it. It’s no longer possible to just think “it’ll be fine,” “it’ll be over soon,” or “whatever, they’re not bothering me, so…”
So, for me, the true value of the outward symbol of the pin is the internal impact on the wearer. It also helps that they’re a pain to get on. The intense focus needed to not stab your fingers or chest underneath is a great reminder of all that you’ve signed up for by putting it on.
Any external benefits to wearing the pin – lending comfort to someone who has been feeling scared or alone, sparking a conversation with a stranger to find out why you’re wearing a safety pin in the first place, or starting a discussion with a friend or co-worker about how to best support people who have been marginalized – these are bonuses. Some might argue these are the main points, and that my internalization of the symbol is just gravy. I’d be happy to have that discussion! But for the way I’m wired, the internal effects are the core function.
Wow! What simpler times we lived in, when all we had to worry about in the liberal blogo-twit-face-sphere was whether deciding to wear a safety pin was a good or bad thing. How quaint!
I don’t need to tell you, dear reader, that we are now in far more serious times. However, it’s these times that I think can make the pin more powerful. It’s not a theoretical solution looking for a problem.
First, as I described above, it’s a personal commitment that you will join in, that you will resist. When I originally wrote about the pin sparking me to “take action,” the action I imagined was intervening if I witnessed discriminatory harassment, as this seemed especially relevant post-election. However, the internal action it sparks now is far broader: yes, I will march for causes I believe in. Yes, I will call my senators and representatives (coming for you, Cory Gardner). Yes, I will donate to causes that will protect people and planet (ACLU got the big kudos this weekend, and deservedly so. I’m backing Earthjustice to do the same on the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines).
Second, as in the original post-Brexit intent, it continues to be valuable as a signal to people who may be feeling directly threatened or marginalized. With each day, it seems more and more important to make sure these folks know that you care.
Third, its most important value (and one I didn’t really consider in my earlier note) is to signal to other allies that they are not alone. The last ten days have been trying and I’m sure there is more to come. There will be times when each of us will feel down, feel helpless, will need someone to vent to. The election and the recent demonstrations both showed that there are millions of us out there. Heck, there are MORE of us. But if we start succumbing to complacency and emotional fatigue because we don’t have a shoulder to lean on, we will lose our ability to avert the worst of what may lie ahead.
We cannot lose each other.
So, pins on, friends! Do it for yourself, for those who need your help, and for those who need your ear. You won’t regret it.
** Endnote: my original text included one caveat to my enthusiasm for the safety pin. Given the state of affairs today, I’m far more willing to err on the side of a show of support, but including here for completeness. Plus it has a ridiculous analogy. **
My only hesitation about the safety pin is whether it will be appreciated by the people to whom it attempts to signal support. Like, suppose tomorrow there were a sudden plague of enormous vultures that only eat right-handed people and are deathly allergic to citrus fruit. Would I be comforted if all the lefties started affixing Sprite or Fanta bottlecaps to their lapels and carrying bags of tangerines? “Don’t worry, if those bird bastards come for you, we’ve got your back.” Or would I be exhausted by being reminded, even in moments of total security, that there’s a threat to my safety circling overhead?