When American mechanic Walter Hunt patented the safety pin in 1849, he could not have foreseen a day when his invention would be used to make a political statement.
Throughout most of its history, the safety pin has been used to fasten cloth diapers, to hold a kilt together, to attach a race bib to a runner’s jersey or to make a temporary clothing repair in an emergency.
But in the days following the 2016 American presidential election, people around the world have started wearing a safety pin on their clothing as a political statement.
Wearing the pin is meant as a sign of solidarity with those who have been marginalized — gays and lesbians, minorities,refugees and others.
The same gesture was used in the days following the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom earlier this year, when people there began wearing the pins for the same reason.
Wearing a safety pin a way of stating, “I am not a bigot,” or, put in more positive terms, “I am a safe person.”
It’s a small, simple, symbolic gesture and a way for people to indicate they are compassionate, accepting and tolerant of others. It’s meant to indicate that someone in need of support can approach the wearer of the pin.
Making this statement requires little effort.
Anyone can purchase a safety pin for a few cents and pin it to a lapel, sweater, jacket or cap.
Finding and wearing a safety pin takes about the same amount of effort as adding one’s name to a petition or putting a bumper sticker on the back of a vehicle.
While the intent of such gestures may be good, the safety pin symbol could quickly become meaningless.
The reason: There’s no screening procedure in place. Those wearing the pins do not need to register with an official agency or undergo a police check.
All that’s needed is a willingness to wear the pin.
Stores selling safety pins do not ask customers whether they hold racist, sexist, homophobic or other bigoted views.
It’s possible that some people wearing a safety pin on their clothing are not compassionate or tolerant. There’s no way toknow for sure.
And, by the same token, someone who is not wearing a safety pin might be willing to assist a marginalized person in need.
Action is more important than words or symbols, and action takes effort.
It takes a level of commitment to befriend someone who is new to this country.
It takes effort to demonstrate kindness in a tangible way to someone who is gay or lesbian or a member of a visible minority.
It takes time and energy to cultivate a friendship with someone who has been bullied or with someone who has been treated like an outsider.
It is not always easy to call out someone’s racist, sexist or xenophobic comments, and doing so may cost a few friendships.
There’s nothing wrong with wearing a safety pin as a sign of solidarity with those who are marginalized — if that gesture is accompanied by action.
Perhaps, if nothing else, such a gesture will remind the wearer of a commitment to give support when it is needed.
If this is accomplished, the safety pin will have served an important purpose.
John Arendt is the editor of the Summerland Review.