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05 December 2016

Yet Another Post about Safety Pins

A few days after the election, my wife and I took my daughter to the Atlanta Zoo--and I wore a safety pin on my shirt. ICYMI:
Philip Cohen had a nice retort:
For the record, I think all four of the posts linked above raise important and valid points; all of them also err in the same way: they fail to acknowledge the radicalness of symbolic interactionism.

Symbolic interactionism, briefly stated, is the sociological theoretical perspective through which we recognize that "society" is the sum of individual, face-to-face interactions where people define and negotiate "meaning" through symbols. So, what is a symbol, you might be asking? symbol is any relatively concrete thing that stands in for an abstract idea. Each and every pixel, letter, and word in this blog post is a symbol. The compression waves emanating from my mouth as sounds are symbols. A flag is a symbol. Indeed, a safety pin can be a symbol. In intro-level classes, I like to use pink-as-feminine as an example. Imagine you have a baby boy, dress it in pink, and introduce him to your parents. You can imagine that most parents would, at the very least, question this. You and your parents would be contesting symbolic (i.e. the color pink) meaning (i.e. masculinity/femininity). That meaning would then be negotiated with other symbols (i.e. words spoken and/or written). Typically, there would be some kind of resolution, even if only to acknowledge intractability.

The same people who argue that a safety pin is "just a symbol" would undoubtedly not make the same argument that the collection of letters, N-I-G-G-E-R are "just symbols." No, they would rightly understand the symbolic importance of the N-word, and it's power to reify and reproduce the cultural and structural impediments to equality for people of color. The same is true, in this case, of a safety pin. Words, as symbols, are powerful. The symbolic/practical bifurcation is a false dichotomy; the two are inextricably linked.

Granted, practical measures are sometimes more costly or risky than the symbolic, but often, what people present as "practical" is actually symbolic. The Civil Rights Movement gives many examples. Consider marching down a street. Many encountered violence for doing this simple action, but the action itself was not practical in that it could not directly affect change; it is definitionally symbolic--and people have died and survived by such symbols.

Let's go back to the zoo. I wore a safety pin. I saw several older white men there wearing "Make America Great Again" caps. They were doing symbolism as much as I was. They all were the objects of another symbol given off by me, a dirty look. It may not be directly material, but it is real and, quite literally, meaningful.

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