Symbolic gestures can make a difference

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Take Responsibility

By Jim Taylor, published March 2, 2019

I wore a pink shirt last Wednesday. Pink is not my colour. It makes me look like cotton candy with a beard.

But Wednesday was anti-bullying day, so I wore pink.

It feels like a futile gesture. After all, what difference will it make if one old man wears a pink shirt for one day? School yard bullies won’t see it at all. Neither will patriarchal males in India and Africa who think of women as something inferior, to do with as they please. Nor will my pink shirt influence the behaviour of egocentric rulers in Riyadh or Moscow, Washington or Damascus.

Short answer — no difference at all.

Someone else’s problem

 So why bother?

 I hear that response often, when I get into discussions about the state of the world. Everyone agrees — okay, most people in my circles agree — that something needs to be done about wealth inequity, where the three richest Americans have more wealth than the 160 million citizens, 50 per cent of the country’s population, at the bottom of the economic pyramid.

And about climate change and melting glaciers before very valuable real estate in Florida disappears under the seas. And about court processes that turn chronic offenders loose because an overworked cop got the date wrong on a traffic ticket. The answer always seems to be, it’s too big for me to tackle. There’s nothing I can do.

Therefore, that’s what I’ll do. Nothing.

Guaranteed failure

Let’s turn the question around — what will doing nothing accomplish? The answer is also obvious. Nothing.

What you do may not make a difference. But what you don’t do definitely will make a difference.

You may not be able to rescue a child trapped in a burning house. But if you don’t try, you guarantee that child’s death.

Driving safely won’t eliminate accidents; there are other drivers on the road too. But not driving safely will surely increase accidents.

Treating people with respect will not eliminate conflict. But not treating people with respect will certainly increase conflict.

You may remember the oft-told story of a little girl going down the beach throwing stranded starfish into the sea. An observer told her she was wasting her effort. There were far too many starfish for her to throw into the ocean — they’d all die.

“This one won’t,” she replied, flinging another starfish into the waves.

“Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it,” Mahatma Gandhi advised the world.

Insignificant beginnings

The pink shirt movement itself is evidence that doing something is better than doing nothing.

Anti-bullying day started in Canada. With less than one per cent of the world’s population, Canada’s efforts can’t possibly be significant — the argument currently used by opponents of a carbon tax. After all, bullying is universal. Even chickens do it.

Yet 180 countries around the world now mark anti-bullying day in February.

Even more insignificantly, anti-bullying day started with just two high-school students in Nova Scotia. David Shepherd and Travis Price saw older kids bullying a younger student who wore a pink shirt at the opening day of school. So, on their own, they bought 50 pink T-shirts, and handed them out.

“I learned that two people can come up with an idea, run with it, and it can do wonders,” Price, then 17, told the Globe and Mail. “Finally, someone stood up for a weaker kid.”

The spread of anti-bullying day confirms that symbolic acts can have a positive effect.

The worst result

 The U.S. calculates that one out of every four children will be bullied during adolescence. Bullying rarely stops after a single incident; 71 percent of bullied students continue to be bullied, with a strong correspondence between being bullied and suicide.

Again, Canada brought this reality to international attention.

Amanda Todd, a 15-year-old Canadian victim of cyberbullying, committed suicide in October 2012 at her home in Port Coquitlam, B.C. Shortly before her death, Todd posted a YouTube video that used hand-lettered flash cards to describe her experience.

The video went viral. More than 12 million people have seen it.

Just six months later, 17-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons attempted suicide in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. Her parents switched off her life supportmachine in April 2013.

The two women’s suicides pushed cyberbullying into prominence. In 2012, Todd was the third-most Googled person in the world, surpassing even Hollywood stars. In 2013, 38 countries held vigils in her memory.

So wearing pink on anti-bullying day may seem like a futile gesture. But it affirms that doing something is better than doing nothing.

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Copyright © 2019 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups encouraged; links from other blogs welcomed; all other rights reserved. To send comments, to subscribe, or to unsubscribe, write jimt@quixotic.ca

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