Friday, October 9, 2015

Empty Symbols

Symbols are important.  They serve as a means of communicating a powerful message in a way accessible to people without reliance on language.  They represent something complex, and make it more accessible.  They reach us on an emotional level and serve as a rallying point.

But the symbol of a thing is not the thing iteself.

There is nothing wrong with wearing a pink ribbon, buying the pink yogurt, or walking a 5K to support breast cancer.  The pink ribbon has become a very powerful symbol for women's health.  But the symbol of the thing is not the thing.  That pink sweatshirt does everything to make you feel satisfied with your social consciousness, and NOTHING to advance women's health.

What does support women's health?  Planned Parenthood.  Local free clinics.  Universal health care.

There is nothing wrong with Georgians coming up with $44,000 to paint a set of crosswalks rainbow during Pride week via crowdfunding online.  But considering the level of rainbowfication in that neighborhood during Pride week, it does NOTHING to advance the rights and safety of gender and sexual minorities (GSM) in Atlanta.

What DOES advance the rights and safety of GSM in Atlanta?  Lost-n-Found Youth.  Non-discrimination laws protecting employment and housing.  Initiatives to prevent GSM targeted violence.

Organizations count on complacency for profit.  They know that if they can get you to cough up a few bucks for their product, you will get that warm fuzzy glow of self-esteem as value-added.  But it is vitally important that understand the difference between the symbol of the thing, and the thing itself. 

The thing itself sometimes takes more effort than whipping out your wallet (although donating directly to helping organizations is a good start).  It means writing your elected officials.  It means signing petitions.  It means standing up to people who say things you know are wrong.  It means re-arranging your own thinking on important issues affecting vulnerable populations. 

Now that awareness of pink-washing and rainbow-washing are going mainstream, it will be more and more difficult for you to buy your complacency.  You might want to find out for yourself that the warm glow you get from actually making a difference is much warmer than the self-congratulation of supporting a fresh coat of paint on the street where our kids are living homeless. 

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