Why I’m OK with this version of the Safety Pin

The debate over wearing safety pins as a sign to potential victims of racial/anti-woman/anti-LGBTQ+/religious violence that the wearer is willing to intervene on their behalf has largely undone what I saw as a powerful opportunity. Not the first time something I thought was a good idea got washed away, not the last. So it goes.

I have to admit I had some trepidation about wearing the pin in public, which was inchoate until I read this piece (“So You Want to Wear a Safety Pin”), in which the author makes a strong case that even (especially) if the symbol communicates what was its primary message (not a generalized anti-bigotry message, but a much more targeted message to potential victims that they can count on your help if they need it), wearers need to be sure they can deliver what they’re promising. That might include putting yourself in physical danger, might even entail participating in violence if that’s what it takes. I was already having a hard time reconciling my own pacifism with that possibility, realizing both that it’s a deep personal/philosophical/political commitment and an expression of privilege that I get to decide whether to fight back, but the person who sees me wearing the pin on the bus doesn’t know that’s a complicated question.

I saw enough argumentation about how fraught the symbol has become–and arguments coming from the populations who I would be supporting by wearing it–that I decided not to wear one on my person. As one Facebook friend put it, no matter what I mean to be saying, I (and others, obviously) have lost control over that meaning, particularly in public settings where there’s not going to be time to talk about it.

However, I have decided that in conjunction with the hashtag #NotOnMyCampus, I’ll use the image designed by friend and comrade Kevin Mahoney as a signal to students, staff, faculty, and other members of our campus community that I’m doing more than announcing how anti-bigotry I am.


By posting this image as a sign at my office and having it visible in as many places as possible, I want community members to know that I’ll help them with anything they need in the event of a threat or act of violence or harassment–filing reports, finding a place to hide out, organizing public responses, talking to Public Safety or police, confronting bigots face to face, helping to raise money for anti-violence groups, helping to organize bystander training, and so on. I’ll do as much of that as I can without waiting for people to ask, but this sign tells them that they can ask without having to wonder how I’ll respond.

If there are members of the community who find it an empty gesture, so be it. I hope they’ll tell me that so we can talk about what would serve as a more meaningful contribution. In that case, it will still have accomplished something useful.



One Response to Why I’m OK with this version of the Safety Pin

  1. As a rule, I don’t buy the empty gesture argument. It doesn’t pass the “so what?” test. By this I mean simply that a so-called empty gesture reduces a complex signal to a simple either/or that is not applicable in most cases. In addition, so what? If the gesture is empty it can’t harm, by definition of its emptiness.

    That said, I appreciate your thoughtful discussion of the safety pin. I have found myself taking my time considering if I should wear the pin — wondering if it is meant more to appease what used to be called “liberal white guilt” rather than signify anti-bigotry. In my part of the country, terms like “liberal white guilt” and “white man’s burden” are still very much alive. Terms like “white privilege” are easily batted away as attempts to rename these. I would call this reaction an example of white fragility, but doing that merely ensconces me further into the feedback loop generated by my group — a group that largely miscalculated the power of Trumpsters this last election…

    I digress…My point is that any power given to the safety-pin image can be easily dismissed by the nearest internet troll. And they are feeling very comfortable with the Trump win, so encounters with trolls in real life are super possible.

    I love the image composed by Kevin Mahoney. I like that it helps establish a way to read the safety pin. I plan on printing the image and hanging it near my office door, if my office mates don’t object.

    Good on you! And good on Kevin Mahoney, too!!

    The Mahoney image is not ambiguous. It’s powerful, with its use of the command voice. I can’t think of a reason not to use it. In fact, I might make it into a patch for my jacket. Well done.

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