In November of 2016, I found myself increasingly distressed by the tone of civic life, not just in America, but around the world. There was a new level of just plain, low-down meanness. Name calling, threats… it seemed as though humanity, as a species, was bent on finding out what’s lower than living in the gutter.
I heard from people who were being threatened, or attacked, for some perceived difference. Some way they were perceived as being strange, or not fitting in. It’s not like the abusers were taking time to get to know people and then finding them objectionable. No, this was surface stuff. A way of dressing, the sound of a voice, skin color. Based on just that, the attackers decided they knew who those people were and what that meant.
About that time, I found out about the “Safe Harbor” pin, a plain safety pin worn to signal that you are safe to approach, that you won’t abuse or attack someone else. The idea came from Great Britain. I began wearing a safety pin. It wasn’t something I thought through deeply. It just felt right.
Soon after, reports started surfacing of people who self-identified as “white supremacists” wearing plain safety pins, and a few people objected to the idea of the “safe harbor” pin. The first were, perhaps, trying to co-opt the safe harbor symbol and turn it. The second objected because, they said, wearing a safe harbor pin was (and I’m paraphrasing here), a way for white people to feel good about themselves without doing anything about the problems facing society.
To resist the co-opting of the symbol, I started decorating my pin, making it more flashy, not the sort of thing your average white supremacist would be comfortable with. I started beading my pins, either adopting color patterns already associated with certain causes (like the rainbow pin for LGBTQI rights), or assigning a meaning to a pattern (like the red and white pin showing a commitment to health care for all).
Before going on, let’s address the second issue, that the pin is “just” a symbol. No symbol, on its own, solves a problem, yet human beings seem to need them. We’re always creating symbols. It’s a shorthand for an idea, and using that symbol is a way to remind yourself that you are committed to it, and to tell others that you think it’s important. I have been told by people wearing Love Bead Safe Harbor Pins that when they have them on, it alters their interactions with other people. They’re more cognizant of the choices they make. That, I believe, is a good thing.
As I wore my pin, other people admired it and asked where they could get one. I started making extras, carrying them around and giving them to people who admired my pin. As I did, I explained briefly the significance of the pin and started using the term “radical respect” to explain the idea that we have the choice to treat other people, even people we disagree with, or don’t understand, or disapprove of, with respect. That we can respect our common humanity.
The more I talked to people, the clearer the idea became. Given a chance, would people choose to publicly avow a belief that all people should be treated with respect?
Looking at the conversations I was having, I realized that the pin was a means to talking about these ideas and making them conscious choices. If I simply approached someone and asked him to publicly declare his commitment to treating people with respect, most people would probably decline, if they even let me finish the thought. But I saw that offering that little keepsake, that beaded pin, gave people the opportunity to make a conscious choice. At a pin giveaway, here are the choices:
- Make eye contact or don’t. If someone avoids eye contact, I let him walk by;
- Talk to me or don’t. If I start to offer a pin and the person indicates he doesn’t want to talk, I let him pass;
- Listen to me or don’t. A few people will cut me off mid-sentence and leave, or dispute the basic idea (the “yeah, but” reaction);
- Accept a pin, or don’t. At this point, the pin has a meaning attached to it already (“Wearing it or keeping it where you can see it represents your belief that all people, even people you may disagree with, not understand, or disapprove of, should be treated with respect.”). To accept the set at this point is to accept the philosophy. Because you are offered the pin, and the philosophy, in a public place, acceptance is a public statement;
- Choose a basic Safe Harbor Pin, or choose one with a secondary meaning (support for women’s rights, for example, or support for access to health care);
- Wear the pin, or don’t. What you do with the pin is another point of choice. Those who strongly agree are most likely to wear the pin (sometimes putting it on at that moment);
- Share the second pin on the card, or don’t. I’ve seen people do it right away, or state to whom they intend to give the second pin.
Via that little pin, people are given a way to make a conscious choice, affirm that choice, and even advocate for their belief.
While a couple of people contacted me online and volunteered to contribute to the cost of the materials for the pins, when I give away pins in person, I do not solicit donations, nor do I accept them. It’s important to me that it is free to the recipient. It is presented as a gift. If someone offers me money in person, I urge him to contribute that money to a cause or charity he supports.
In total, we gave away 510 sets of pins in three cities (or 1,020 pins).
Over and over, I’ve talked with people who get very energized and enthusiastic, far more than the offer of a free beaded safety pin can account for. Having talked to hundreds of people and watched them react, it seems to be the idea they get excited about, that we can consciously choose how to treat people, and that those choices say something about the people we decide to be. In a couple of minutes, they are presented with that information (by being presented with the chance to consciously choose), and a symbol of the decision they made.
I’ve had people say they like “having a name for it.” As one woman explained, “having a name for the idea makes it easier to talk about.” Another said that having the symbol helped her talk about the ideas behind it as she could show the pin and explain what it is as a way to start.
My mother used to say that people will rise to your expectations, or fall to them. Certainly that’s been my experience in this project. Given a simple keepsake as a symbol, many people will confirm for themselves and the people around them that they aspire to ask more of themselves.
Which is a very hopeful thing.
I’m grateful to have been present when they made that choice. To everyone who chose to take a set of pins, thank you for letting me be part of that moment. May you be blessed and may you enjoy the pride you justifiably feel. It seemed like a brief moment and a small thing, but it was big.