Safety Pins, Flags and Badges: Solidarity or “Slacktivism”?

Mass murder, genocide, war, terrorist attacks…whatever it is that happens, so many of us feel compelled to show our “solidarity” with the victims and take to social media.

That’s it.

For most people, that is the extent of their activism.  It is the limit of their statement of solidarity.  As long as they have been seen to do that, then they are satisfied with themselves.

There’s no question that symbolism is an extremely powerful tool, especially when we consider something as poignant as the poppies worn for armistice.  Symbols carry with them an extension of meaning that goes beyond the literal and makes connections with personal and social values. Their connotations are dependent on culture and interpretation, so wearing a symbol is not the same as seeing a symbol².  A cross means something very different for the Christian wearing it than it does for an atheist seeing it.  Humans are not computers: encoding and decoding communication is not a simple, like-for-like process.

The Pins of Safety

So how does the safety pin fit into this encoding/decoding relationship?  The irony with the pins is that they just aren’t considered that “safe” anymore. Velcro is king now! But the pins are still clearly associated with holding and fastening things together: they have a function rather than a symbolic meaning.  What we have tried to do in society is invent a level of symbolism and as usual we have wrongly assumed that social media will do the work for us.

Safety pins are now supposed to say something profound. They are supposed to declare that a person wearing one is a “safe” person. An image might be of someone stepping onto a nearly full bus seeing only a few individual seats free.  Anxious and uncertain about all the strangers who may victimise them or oppress them, they can be assured by that one individual showing a safety pin that should be safe to sit next to them.

What if the pin-wearer is not an all-round “safe” person? Maybe they are “safe” when it comes to racial issues, but a mind-boggling homophobe at the same time.  How are we to know they are our kind of safe? It would be unfortunate if that thought was to cause anxiety.

Is it a little too lacklustre to really work: or is it just a bit slack and lazy? Can a pin on your coat ever sign any more than your body language and facial expression? Whatever happened to making eye-contact or smiling? How would you feel if you saw Donald Trump and Nigel Farage wearing a pin?  I very much doubt that the positivity of a pin can supersede their negativity in the same way that a Swastika can supersede warmth we feel for the likes of Patrick Stewart?

This might be somewhat negative to suggest, but are these pins not more about what we wish to be seen as rather than what we are actually offering? For example, if you see someone being mistreated or oppressed are you willing to stand by the “safety” you promise with that pin and actively help them, or is your pin more about wanting to look like a safe person? If all you are prepared to do is the latter, what is the point?

How far does our “solidarity” really extend?

World leaders usually step up to “condemn” events such as terrorist attacks. We can’t pretend to know how they personally feel, but professionally it has become such a PR norm in the media that it
is expected. It’s almost as if they fear that saying nothing might be interpreted as “condoning” the attack. But such public condemnation always seems so empty, patronising and fatuous. Surely their audience is either in agreement with them and thinks nothing more than “well, duh” or in support of the terrorists and simply don’t care about the emptiness of such statements. The knee-jerk panic could be argued to feeding directly into the hands of the terrorists, their ideology, and what they are trying to achieve.  There’s a great article in The Spectator on this issue.

Seeing people terrified and running scared is exactly what people like ISIS want. They revel in the civil unrest they cause, especially in the rifts between Muslims and their communities. Surely removing that success from them would at least give the rest of us the moral high ground. Tell them: we won’t play your games.  Show them. Be active in our solidarity by celebrating peace and striving to protect the innocent. Otherwise, are we not merely blowing hot air around our social media screens?

Brexit & Solidarity?

The EU Referendum was tipped as being the single most important political vote the British people were given in a generations.  The choice will have far reaching, long term effects on the make-up of our society. Everyone knew that immigration was going to be a major topic, but the campaign was a mess of propaganda, in-fighting and lies. Shambolic politics punctuated by public debates that did more to fit feed into scapegoating and scaremongering than they did to inform.

However, with it being won so closely (and if we are truthful, most people expected to “remain”) the upsurge against the result almost inevitable. The last two years have been all about so-called democracy producing extremely close results by  polarising what should be more complex debates.

A 41% increase in race related “hate crimes” is a statistic that must not be ignored. Some would argue that figure has been exaggerated.  Nevertheless, it is clear that rather than merely arguing that less people should be coming to the UK, the issue had over-spilled into bitter disputes of ignorance and racial attacks. Many people have tried to intellectualise the racism, justify it, or even deny that it is racism at all.  They try to tie it up with political issues such as housing, NHS provision, education and humanitarian efforts.

But no amount of rhetoric can explain away spitting on a woman’s hijab or shouting “go back to your own country,” or any other of the abhorrent examples you can find in articles such as this one from the Independent. Reports of teenagers attacking a pregnant woman or killing an elderly man for speaking his native language should appal us to the core and drive us to act.  Brexit might well have brought underlying issues bubbling to the surface, but it takes years of hate-training to get 14 year old to kick a pregnant woman. Surely it cannot be enough to just stick a safety pin on and hope for the best.

When racism is aimed at people who are second, third or even fourth generation British people is reveals a depressing level of ignorance which no-one – in my opinion – has the excuse to hold.  Brexit did not cause that racism, but the campaigns running up to the vote in June certainly gave an ignorant minority what they thought was a green light or “permission” to air their feelings.

The whole immigrant population, of all different ages, has felt less supported.  There has been a kind of “darkening” of the mood that has been felt, and that inspired the safety pin idea.  People are scared, and in the absence of a six-foot flood light with a shape of a bat, a small symbol that could offer someone a moment of respite seems all that we can offer. It then took just half a year for the Safety-Pin symbol to be called upon again as the USA voted in a new President who openly used messages of hate and segregation in his campaign.

And yet they still come…

Despite the dangers and uncertainty of Brexit and all that has come with it, lots of people still see immigration to the UK as their best option. Interestingly, the Home Office has massively raised prices of key Visas and appeals. One cannot help but wonder if they are rubbing their heads in frustration, or their hands in profiteering satisfaction.

For example, one of the main reasons people come to the UK is to put establish a new family life in a wealthier county that makes more promise that their children can get the education they need freely and safely.  The UK has some world-leading universities, although latest statistics show a slight decrease in applications in general.  At this stage it, it’s very hard to put an accurate finger on why.

A 2014 a BBC report placed the UK at 6th in the world, and 2nd in the EU for education after having changed the way we classify ability.  But if you look at the website “Full Fact”, England ranks 21st in Science, 23rd in reading, and 26th in maths in the top 65 countries in the world.  Over all, the UK is 20th in the world for teaching the basic skills. So one should be left to wonder about education being a major reason for families to come to the UK rather than Eastern Asian country. Unless, of course, the main attraction is the fact that state education is free and can be accessed if adults apply for immgration visas and bringing their child as a dependent.

The main reason behind UK immigration is still as an economic migrant. The is where the typical “coming here, taking all our jobs” grumble comes from.  That was something that the Brexit campaign didn’t bother to rightly inform on, and the “Remain” campaign couldn’t be bothered to challenge.  However, of the 300k people coming to work in the UK over the last year, 176k already had a job lined up.  Only 127,000 came over without a job¹. Given the number of zero-hour jobs being taken up, and the number of unemployed people being pushed into “self employed” jobs without financial stability behind them, the government statics are hardly reflective of the real employment situation.  So many people live their lives on the cusp of joblessness and homeless, but not officially “unemployed” that the government get to smile through gritted teeth, hoping no-one notices for it it all comes crumbling down.

A History of Closing the Door?

Restricting the numbers of people immigrating to the UK is not a new thing at all.  Despite the promise that Brexit would be “the answer,” all it has really done is provide a false promise that it could be a final answer.  In the late 1800s there was such an increase in Jewish migrants it led to the 1905 Aliens Act. The Act was originally intended to prevent criminals and the poor from entering, and provided the powers to deport them. The Act also gave the Home Secretary overall responsibility for immigration matters.  That was superseded by later acts, but essentially the basis of it remains the same.

However, by the 1940s immigration had still risen 400k, which included 100k built up in the 1930s due to the number of Jews fleeing Europe from the Nazis.  Bear in mind that 10,000 of those would have been children on the Kindertransport, brought over by the World Jewish Relief set up in 1933 – a true act of humanitarian “solidarity”, it could be said.

The post-WW2 immigration boost of an extra 2m between around 1951 to 1991, and the baby boom  m (in addition to natural growth of population).  So there was a very clear shift in the make-up of the UK. Racial issues and tensions changed and adjusted over that time, influenced by issues after the war, Martin Luther King Jr, and so on.  Our own blog on Seretse Karma also parts of a shift in social attitude, albeit still only ripples in a huge ocean.  His story has been captured in the new film “A United Kingdom.”

Over this period of UK Twentieth Century History various cities began to establish large communities of immigrant families.  Gladstone Street in Peterborough is one such example, and it began to move into the city in the 1960s, after the Polish, Italian, African and Afro-Caribbean communities across the city.  Peterborough is well known for visa and immigration issues mainly due to the main Passport office, but people who live in the city know Gladstone street as a key Pakistani and Asian central community right on the cusp of the city centre.  Community leaders of all faiths in Peterborough have worked hard to secure solidarity and most people who grew up in the city in the last half century know nothing other than a multicultural society.

Brexit Whiplash

The Brexit whiplash of increase racial attacks has been aimed with true ignorance at any and all UK immigrants – even those who have been here for generations.  Their home for generations has been shaken, and there has been a growing feeling of no longer being welcome.  Surely it is incumbent on us all to actively challenge such attacks?  The safety pins were supposed to mark a safe person to go to, stand next to, as if the pin marked some kind of safety bubble.

A problematic analogy when you consider what you can do with a pin…and a bubble.

A different kind of oppression, but the same need for safety.

Let’s consider a different example of solidarity and activism, and away from immigration – one that is less obviously linked to oppression, but also uses symbolism. People with Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and their children are always facing challenges in raising awareness of the conditions and how it can affect their lives.  Given the sheer number of people affected by autism one could wonder why it isn’t more widely understood.

There are many groups, often led by parents of children with ASD, or experts with personal or professional experience.  They share their experience by organising events and mutually beneficial projects. One such example is Chris Bonnello, a former teacher with Asperger Syndrome. In the space of just 18 months, Chris has built up his “Autistic not weird” brand to such an extent that he is now followed on Facebook by over 37,000 page likes and is continuously being booked for talks and training events all over the UK.  His hook on the phrase “not weird” is entirely sincere and rings true with so many individuals and families.  What Chris has done, and continues to do, is not only build up the positivity amongst those he inspires, but also to raise awareness, undertake talks, train and educate others in what Autism is.  His activism has launched him into exciting new directions, and despite being an incredible humble individual there is no telling just how much of an effect his activism has the potential for in the future.  And all you have to do is visit his website to see how “Captain Quirk” makes use of the symbolic jigsaw piece in his own logo.

Another successful campaign has been “A Year in the Life of Autism” which started as a blog, but its creators – Dean and Amy Devonport – have become very popular and well-known for their experience and tenacity, willing to take on TV appearances, politicians and everything to fight for the rights of all disabled people. They have used multicoloured jigsaw pieces, and now use a star as their main image: but the point is that they constantly take steps far beyond just wearing a badge.

If you type “Autism” into Google Images the jigsaws are clearly seen as an accepted the symbol (almost “iconic,” but not yet).  They are used in logos, badges, ribbons, and all over various pages. It is indeed a kind of symbol of solidarity.  But the true successes are not just those who post images of solidarity on social media, but they are the likes of Chris, Dean, Amy, et al, who proactively engage in the issues.

The Safety Pin…returns

Donald Trump was elected after having fought an election based on racist, bigoted and divisive rhetoric.  Trump openly remarked on Islam, Mexicans, terrorism, LGBT rights, and so much more.  So now we see the safety pins again, not just in cases for safety from racism, but also for LGBT rights.  It seems that another nation has been split down the middle on important issues, with probably little or no understanding as to their complexity and consequence.  But are safety pins really the answer?  Can they help hold a country together?

Heroes of Solidarity

We can’t all be heroes and jump to people’s rescues, but we sometimes hear of those who do step up and truly champion a course, often over or amidst diversity. A key name of WW2 was Oscar Schindler, the Nazi SS spy who managed to use his own fortunes to run a factory as a cover to save 1,200 Jews from near certain death in Poland. Schindler put his life on the line, and had his planned been discovered he would have been executed.

An extraordinary example of support and solidarity in more modern history was shown by Sir Alex Ferguson towards just one man – Dave Jones.  Documented in Jones’ autobiography is the time when Jone’s was subjected to false, malicious allegations of abuse.  Being in the public eye made his reputation all the more testing and potentially costly.  Knowing this, and using his influence, Ferguson walked out at an old Trafford match side by side with Jones, knowing that such a gesture who have a profound effect on public opinion.  And it did.

Activism .v. Slacktivism?

Activism is action; involvement in the present tense; standing in the way of abuse and oppression; openly objecting to it. “Slacktivism” is merely responsive, self-affirming, and at worst, self-righteous.  It is the kind of statement which requires no need to do anything but merely sit back and feel self-satisfied that one’s condemnation is secure and publicly stated.

But what exactly does it achieve? Even wearing a poppy or a cancer research ribbon (or an NSPCC Green Full Stop; a Stop Bullying wrist band; a Red Nose…etc.) usually shows you have donated a bit of money to a charity.

So the question is: are safety pins, flags and banners enough?

Recommended Further Reading:

How to raise ACTUAL awareness” – Chris Bonnello (Autistic Not Weird)

Cups, Microphones And Viral Autism – When Awareness Makes Use Less Aware” – Danielle Duggins (Huffington Post Blog)