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How to create change one behavior at a time.

#TrumpRiot vs #SafetyPin

How should progressives in America respond to the resounding defeat dealt them on Tuesday?

After a political season laced with hate, many find purpose in protesting what happened and rededicating themselves to fighting back. Their rallies get derided as riots by the winners who want calm, but the real story is a strategy common across the world – protest.

Meanwhile, Americans like me have begun wearing a safety pin as a symbol to those subject to racism, intolerance and a changing immigration policy that we want our country to be safe for them, a practice that first appeared in Britain after Brexit.

The approaches are not mutually exclusive, but as someone whose business is behavior change, I wondered: How effective are each of these at healing wounds and moving my country in the right direction?  

Both are about connecting with those who share your values. As I think about what that means for those protesting or wearing pins, I see lots of commonality: We want a connected world. We want to protect all kinds of people, and the planet we share as well. We want to see empathy, understanding and peace.

Protests help us:

  • Speak truth to power
  • Show strength in numbers when we feel outnumbered
  • Project a desire for change
  • Channel emotions like passion, loyalty, fear, sadness, disgust and anger
  • Demand justice

 What does wearing a safety pin accomplish? I think the pin, as a symbol, helps us:

  • Show who we really are (we call this a “self-standard” in behavior change marketing)
  • Wear our emotions – love, empathy and understanding
  • Take an easy action nobody else can stop at a time when we feel we are losing control
  • Take a very limited risk: Some might disagree with my motives, but I’m unlikely to be the primary target of verbal or physical abuse

No idea is without potential flaws. When the safety pin symbol flourished in the UK after Brexit as a way to show solidarity with the UK’s immigrant population, concerns were raised not about the intentions, but about whether the audience this is intended to help would actually benefit. After all, the idea wasn’t generated by someone who had been attacked, but by someone who wanted to show support. Poorna Bell, writing in the Huffington Post last summer, explained, “While I think it’s great – amazing, even – that people are protesting en masse against Brexit racism, and are saying it’s not okay, this isn’t how solidarity works. When I’m sitting on a train and I see your safety pin, I don’t think: ‘Hurrah, now I feel safe.’ My default expectation from you as a human being in society is to not be racist or call me a Paki on my morning commute. Wearing a safety pin just reminds me that I’m not safe, and telling me that you’re on ‘my side’ just reinforces the idea of sides. As a person of colour, the thing I hate most is being reminded there is a Them and Us. It makes us feel different. It makes us draw lines, and surely the goal of any enlightened society is inclusivity: the rubbing out of lines rather than reinforcing them with tiny bits of steel.”

My question is which option is more effective in showing solidarity and empathy? Can a symbol – like a safety pin – be a starting point not for one side, but for anyone who wants to show they are an ally and will stand up for others?

I shared this idea with my colleagues last night and by this morning found many willing participants. As someone who applies social psychology, I’m most interested in learning about how this small symbol will ultimately affect those I seek to connect with. So along with many others, I will be wearing my safety pin. But that’s not all.

Because the truth is, wearing a symbol isn’t enough. It is the action the wearer is willing to take to live our values, and the empathy we communicate in the conversations that will surely result. By that I mean, when people ask me about the safety pin, I will begin by trying to connect with them, even if it becomes clear they are coming from a different outlook. Because only then will they truly listen. My job is not to persuade them. It is to find where we connect and go from there, sharing who I am, how I feel and why – hopefully in a way they can truly understand. Perhaps that’s my biggest hope – that I can do that. Because sometimes the biggest change happens not from winning an argument, but from discovering how you and someone else are on the same side.

Christene Jennings is Chief Operating Officer at Marketing for Change.

Behavior change marketing in six steps

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