When my kids were younger, my second greatest fear was that they would grow up to become bullies: first when they were in school, and then later, in other parts of their life. Surprisingly, it does not then follow that my first greatest fear was that they would instead grow up to become victims. (Trust me: after having lived with each of them for only a few years it became all too obvious to me that two such delightfully disobedient children would never be on the receiving end of bullying.) No, my first greatest fear, actually, was that they would grow up to become bystanders—a role that, to me, is even more heinous than that of the bully.
The bully, at least, derives some sort of benefit from their actions. They are (it can only be assumed), taking these actions to make their life, at least in their own perception, better. The end result of a successful bullying campaign for them might mean increased social status, greater respect (albeit fear-based), and a reduced chance that they will ever be bullied themselves. It makes sense, in a twisted way, that someone would want to be a bully.
A bystander, on the other hand, receives nothing but the certainty that nothing will ever change.
Maybe that’s what some bystanders like. Maybe they’re so happy to not be a victim themselves that it doesn’t bother them to see it happen to other people. The cynical part of me—the part that thinks people are inherently bad—tends to go for this explanation. The hopeful part of me, however—the part that knows that people are almost always good—thinks that they are just afraid.
The ironic thing, of course, is that there are always way more bystanders than either bullies or victims. And that if we just stood together then there really wouldn’t be anything to be afraid of.
That’s why I was so happy to learn about the Safety Pin Campaign. The Safety Pin Campaign arose out of the ashes of the last election, when people who had historically felt marginalized and vulnerable began to express their fears about what this “brave new world” meant for them. More specifically, about what it meant for their safety. The idea is that since people can’t go around every day wearing t-shirts that proclaim their allegiance to equality and respect (outside of a college campus, that is), they can instead wear a safety pin, indicating to those around them that they are a “safe space.”
Some guy harassing you on the bus because you wear a hijab? Come sit next to me. Some lady yelling at you at the movies because you’re holding hands with your boyfriend? Come get in my line at the concession stand instead. The idea is to communicate that you are “safe” without drawing any more attention to the bully than necessary, because bullies are like fire, and attention is the oxygen without which they can’t function. (Actually, I’m not quite sure that works as a metaphor, since, truth be told, none of us can function without oxygen. It just seems a little nicer to picture bullies as a fire that has been brought under control rather than someone who has been ejected from the airlock and is slowly suffocating in the depths of space. Although…)
I know, in the grand scheme of things, that wearing a safety pin is A Small Thing®. But when you think about it, so are some of the things that hurt us: the dismissive look, the muttered comment, the few extra (and unnecessary) inches taken in the subway car. If, as we all know, small actions can hurt, then why can’t they help as well?
True, one single safety pin might not be enough to help save anyone. But if you link enough of them together, then you’ve got yourself a nice suit of chain mail. And even bullies are smart enough to know to avoid a knight in shining armor.