Beyond Safety Pins and Signs: the Problem with Symbolic Protests
As readers of this blog and website probably know by now, I identify strongly as a Progressive. Leftist politics are at the core of much of what I do, and much of what I write. I believe staunchly in feminism. I am a big proponent of gay and trans rights. I believe that that institutional racism, sexism and homophobia are some of the most toxic, important factors in society today.
Yet despite my fierce belief in feminism, I would not identify online as a “male feminist.” And though I believe strongly in Black Lives Matter, I would feel like a poser putting a “Black Lives Matter” sign on my lawn. Though I support gay rights, I honestly would feel weird about trumpeting my status as an ally of the queer community.
When I see a “Black Lives Matter” sign in the front lawn of a mansion in an affluent, overwhelmingly white neighborhood, it sends a signal. That’s what it’s supposed to do. But the signal it sends isn’t necessary what it’s intended.A Black Lives Matters sign is of course a protest against institutionalized police brutality, profiling, racism and murder. It’s a statement that needs to be made because so much of our culture screams, intentionally or not, that the lives of non-whites do not matter.
Yet when I see a white person with a “Black Lives Matter’ sign in their spacious back yard, it sends out other signals as well. Consciously or not, it says, “I’m not one of those white people”, “I’m not racist”, “I’m on your side” and “I’m one of the good ones.” Those are the messages, intended or not, I have a problem with, not the ones about police brutality. Because while I strive not to be a sexist, racist, homophobic, self-loathing shit every day of my life, hopefully with some success, I wouldn’t feel right patting myself on the back for being less terrible than my fellow white, heterosexual, CIS folks, or patting myself on the back at all.
It’s an overwhelming sense of helplessness and vulnerability that makes well-intentioned folks want to do their part to fight the hideous poison of bigotry, even if it’s something as poignantly small and inconsequential as posting a selfie of yourself wearing a safety pin on social media or changing the background of your Facebook avatar to a rainbow.
The problem with identifying online as a male feminist and/or ally, or white people publicly embracing “Black Lives Matter” is that they’re weak symbolic gestures whose weakness underlines and highlights the helplessness and vulnerability people feel in the face of horrific institutionalized oppression. These are all wonderful and worthy causes to support, but I feel like the weakness of these gestures defeats the good intentions behind them.
It’s not just that these gestures are purely symbolic. It’s bad enough that these measures are purely symbolic; it’s worse that they barely even quality as gestures. They end up saying more about the person publicly enacting these gestures than they do about the social ills they’re so limply protesting.
In the wake of Trump’s election and the horrifying but not terribly surprising revelations brought about by the Harvey Weinstein, gestures can’t help but seem woefully inadequate, if not pointless and counter-productive. No, now is the time for action, and good Lord do I have a ways to go on that front. Perhaps that’s part of the reason I’m so uncomfortable with conspicuous displays of social consciousness. I feel like it would be wrong and hypocritical and disingenuous to assume the signifiers of “wokeness” (a phrase that can seemingly never be used without a whole lot of irony and sarcasm) without doing the work.
It’s not enough to say you support all the good things and are against all the bad things. You have to act on those convictions as well. And it wouldn’t hurt for action to take the place of words and gestures. I’d say I’m starting with the man in the mirror, but that would probably be a goddamned lie.
NFL players kneeling is likewise a symbolic gesture but the fame and power of professional athletes makes it much more forceful and effective. If these protests didn’t have power the goddamn President of the United States would not be throwing a temper tantrum over them, and ordering Mike Pence to copy that temper tantrum, whine for whine. The online protests of well-meaning but misguided online progressives, however, aren’t liable to upset anyone beyond some reactionary uncles who are probably beyond being reached, because they’re preaching to the converted and are too fundamentally timid to change anyone’s mind.
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