Sunday, 13 November 2016

Should You Wear a Safety Pin – Say Something Sunday

People in the US are borrowing a response to Brexit.  It’s the small act of wearing a safety pin to show that we stand in solidarity with marginalized groups.  This is in response to the US having a president-elect who ran on a platform of blatant racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, misogyny, anti-Queer anti-Trans sentiment, and anti-Semitism, whose election was supported, endorsed, and celebrated by the KKK, and who has appointed a white supremacist and a boatload of viciously anti-queer and trans people to his transition team,

As word of this project has been getting around, there have been arguments against it, and a few hundred of you have asked me what I think.  I thought I would discuss the major arguments that I’ve seen and then give my thoughts:

The first argument I’ve seen is the idea that you shouldn’t wear the pin unless you have a plan to intervene in any and all situations that might occur, with all marginalized populations, wherever you are.

I think that this argument is flawed in its premise.  I don’t think that anyone is (or, at least, I think that anybody should be) expecting that everyone who is wearing a safety pin is going to have any specific competence when it comes to intervening in these situations.  I think that the safety pin serves as a simple symbol that a person is not part of the active bigotry that has been a cornerstone of donald’s campaign.

As a queer woman, when I’m out in the world there is often no way for me to know if someone is as virulently anti-gay as, say, our new vice president-elect Mike Pence (who wanted to divert funding in his state away from caring for people with HIV and AIDS, to programs that claim – all evidence to the contrary – that they can literally shock the gay out of people.)  If I see someone wearing a safety pin, it comforts me to know that they do not wish to try to shock me straight, and I appreciate that.

However, I have no expectation that they would have any particular skills should some gay bashing go down, and I don’t think I have any right to.  They are wearing a safety pin, not a certification in de-escalation of difficult, dangerous, possibly life-threatening situations.

That said, creating these plans and skill-building around them is an absolutely a worthwhile undertaking that I encourage.

The other major argument I’ve seen is that the pins only serve to make the wearers feel better/assuage their guilt at being privileged, and do nothing to actually help in the situation.

I would never speak for groups to which I don’t belong, what I will say is that as a queer woman (and thus part of at least two of the groups who people wearing the pins are supporting) I disagree with this for several reasons.

First, as I mentioned above, I think that the safety pins show support for me – which I appreciate. Seeing a safety pin is comforting to me.

Perhaps even more importantly, I think that the safety pins serve to disrupt the assumption that bigots tend to have, that people like them hold the same prejudices they do. This happens to my thin Size Acceptance friends when other thin people assume that they are cool with fat bashing, it has happened to me when another white person assumed that I was ok with racist jokes, it happens to straight (and straight passing) people when straight people assume that they are ok with anti-Queer and Trans talk.

When someone is wearing a safety pin, the bigots are forced to acknowledge that the person does not hold the same prejudices.  More people wearing safety pins = less comfort and sense of safety for bigots. In this way people can use their privilege to disrupt bigotry.

I think that research supports the idea that these small steps are important building blocks for future activism. In his book, Influence – The Psychology of Persuasion, Dr. Robert Cialdini talks about a study in which two psychologists asked people living in a neighborhood in California neighborhood to agree to erect a huge billboard in their front yards supporting safe driving. As you might imagine, almost all of them said no. But in one small group, incredibly, about 75% of the residents agreed to put a big ‘ole billboard in their yard. The difference?  That small group had previously agreed to display a 3-inch safe-driving sign in their windows.

Cialdini explains that when they put up the tiny sign, it changed how they viewed themselves.  So when they were asked to say yes to the billboard, they were much more likely to agree because they saw themselves as agents of the cause.

As activists I think we sometimes want people to jump to doing big work, and we get frustrated by small gestures.  But, again speaking only for me and the marginalized communities to which I belong, I think it’s important to remember that those small gestures are more likely to lead to bigger work in the future, and that discouraging people from participating in activism is unlikely to encourage them to participate in the future.

Finally, I know that holding back the tide of bigotry and oppression is going to require a difficult and sustained effort, and I suspect that we are going to be encouraged at every turn to stop paying attention.  It’s my hope that putting on a safety pin every day reminds people that our constant vigilance and work is required.

Certainly there are issues with this project:

There are people who may be using the pins only to assuage their guilt, or they will consider the safety pins to be all they need to do.  The thing is, if that’s how they feel then they probably weren’t going to do anything else anyway, so at least they are doing something.

There are issues of privilege – as a white, currently able-bodied, currently neurotypical, cisgender person wearing the safety pin is less risky for me than it would be for people who have other marginalized identities. Also, while women are definitely marginalized and in danger with donald in office, a majority of white women who voted, voted for donald, and so we need to take responsibility for that, and be sure that all of the efforts we make to protect women include and center Women of Color.

The pin isn’t a perfect predictor of behavior or beliefs. There may be some people who are in support of some communities but not others. As a fat person I’m well aware that someone wearing a pin might be absolutely down with supporting me as a queer person, but still see no issue with fat bigotry. More problematically, this may be the most likely to happen to people in the most marginalized communities. We all need to hold ourselves and each other accountable for examining our own implicit and explicit biases and doing the work to overcome them.

It can’t be the only thing we do.  The next four years are going to require constant vigilance, this is the time to fight, to hold the line, to preserve our humanity and save our country, to try to make this the last stand of the bigots. Safety pins are a start, but they certainly aren’t the end.

The safety pins are meant to show support for People of Color, Muslims, Immigrants, Queer and Trans people, disabled people/people with disabilities, women, and all marginalized populations under attack. There are people in all of those communities who do want people to wear safety pins, and there are people in all of those communities who don’t want people to wear safety pins. No community is a monolith and so every time we do something that some people in the community ask us to do in solidarity, we will upset other people in that same community who disagree with the action. It’s the nature of trying to work in solidarity.

The safety pin project is imperfect.  But then, so is every activist project that has ever been undertaken. So it’s up to each of us to decide what we want to do.

In this case I’m choosing to wear the pin because I would rather err on the side of showing support and solidarity, with apologies to those who would rather I didn’t and who don’t feel supported by the gesture.  And, because it’s Say Something Sunday, I’m telling people that I appreciate them wearing a safety pin in support of the marginalized communities to which I belong.

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