#Safetypin: What binds us together


“We have a stake in one another. What binds us together is greater than what drives us apart.”

In times as divided as these, with politics descending into chaotic flux and with appalling acts of racial abuse seen and heard on UK streets, we must not lose sight of who we are. Today, I started reading Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope. The words quoted at the top of this page are as timely now as when Obama wrote them a decade ago.

Just a few pages later, I was amazed by Obama’s mention of the narrow margin by which George W Bush was elected to his second term in 2005
(a margin that will sound very familiar to UK readers right now), and the uncompromising era it heralded:

“Maybe peace would have broken out with a different kind of White House,
one less committed to waging a perpetual campaign – a White House that
would see a 51-48 victory as a call to humility and compromise rather
than an irrefutable mandate.”

What was true in the US in 2006 is equally true in the UK in 2016. The near-even split in the electorate is
“a call to humility and compromise rather
than an irrefutable mandate.”

Distorted hippie envy
I’ve always had a problem with punk. Much of the incoherent anger of the 1970s UK version of punk makes me think of a toddler’s tantrum at not getting the same treatment and treats as its sibling.*

You might call it distorted hippie envy. The rage might have felt real, they might have mean it, man. But a lot of that rage seems driven by envy. The hippies got a summer of love. We didn’t. So let’s destroy everything and scream and scream until we’re sick in our summer of hate.

Follow this logic through, and the 1970s UK punks wanted nothing more than to be hippies, to have what the hippies had.

Punk recontextualised symbols accordingly. John Lydon’s Pink Floyd t-shirt (and what was he doing owning one in the first place?) was subtly amended with the prefix “I hate.” The humble safety pin took its place on the punk battlefront, an accessible signifier of nothing and everything for those within the punk elite (and with access to £90 Vivienne Westwood bondage trousers**) and those far outside it.

The #safetypin in 2016
Today, the safety pin has been recontextualised once again, to symbolise something entirely different from what it meant to the punks. Earlier this week, Twitter user @cheeahs suggested that a safety pin could be worn “by anyone against the sort of nationalistic, racist violence we’ve been seeing [to] identify themselves as a ‘safe’ ally” of people facing persecution.

The safety pin has become a symbol of the stake we have in one another, a reminder that what binds us together is greater than what drives us apart. I hate that the political situation in the UK has become so diseased that this needs to happen. But I love the values of love, tolerance and protection that the #safetypin movement celebrates.

Life is colourful. Just today, my New York-based friend Victorio Milian posted “An urban haiku” on his instagram account.*** It captures beautifully what all of us should celebrate in 2016:

“It is quite striking,
the rich riot of colors
in these streets I roam.”


We must never lose sight of who we are. We must never lose sight of the value of diversity, love, humanity and the willingness to compromise.

Let’s finish this with one more quotation from Obama’s The Audacity of Hope:

“I am convinced that whenever we exaggerate or demonise, oversimplify or overstate our case, we lose. Whenever we dumb down the political debate, we lose.”


* Similar to what Martin Amis -describing something entirely different in his essential memoir Experience – called the “Martin got a biscuit” syndrome.

** £90 is pure guesswork on my part. If anyone out there knows the actual going price of Vivienne Westwood bondage trousers in the late 1970s, please do let me know.

*** My thanks to Victorio Milian for his kind permission for me to quote his haiku here.

  • Safety pin pic: My thanks to the excellent Simon Heath for his kind permission for me to reproduce his #safetypin image here.

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