Pope Francis, Ann Coulter, and a safety pin
Photo of Ann Coulter (pictured center): Gage Skidmore / CC BY-SA 2.0, image composited by Jason Gottfried

What do Pope Francis, Ann Coulter, and a safety pin have in common? Sounds like the start of a bad joke, doesn’t it?

In fact, the nexus is the injudicious exercise of power over those who don’t have it by those who do.

In a prerecorded message to the international Technology, Education, and Design (aka TED talks) conference in Vancouver, Pope Francis recently addressed the peril of power inflicted on others without the tempering influences of tenderness and humility. If you haven’t listened to his talk in its entirety, here’s a link to the transcript.

The pontiff speaks of a revolution of tenderness that starts in the human heart and reaches outward including toward “our ears to hear each other,” even those who are “afraid of the future.” That last phrase, I think, could easily be used to describe many of us today. In times of uncertainty about world conflict and changing relationships, domestic political change, and personal concerns about financial and emotional stability, it makes sense to be at least wary of the future. The pope suggests that those are the moments that call for openness to each other rather than a closing off through the uncaring use of power.

I have my disagreements with this pope, particularly about the place of women in leadership roles in the Catholic Church, but I like what he had to say here. Sir John Acton, who predated this pope by a few centuries, put it more succinctly: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Next, let’s fit Ann Coulter into this puzzle. To be fair, I don’t know much about her other than what little I’ve read, and I tend to dismiss as right-wing conservative ranting what I hear attributed to her. My position with regard to the woman does not in the slightest way resemble the tenderness Pope Francis envisioned. It would be a reach on my part to get anywhere close to tenderness, in fact.

But…

I don’t agree with the exercise of unbridled power that took place on the campus of University of California, Berkeley recently in reaction to the scheduling of a talk by Coulter there. Campus officials felt it necessary to cancel her appearance after expressing concerns about security and safety. Both supporters of Coulter and those opposed to her visit threatened protests. Security staff expressed fear that the protests would turn violent. The source of the power was from the groups. Inciting protests is one thing, and it’s acceptable as a form of free speech. Threatening that protests might turn violent is not.

When I was an elementary principal back in the last century, we used to take threats among our students seriously, particularly at my last assignment. We explained a threat as “a promise to do a bad thing.” If you say, “I’m going to bust you in your nose,” that’s a threat. As I understand it, the threats of violence came from both sides. If those who made them were students, they should be strenuously reminded of the inviolability of the environment in which they find themselves. The American college campus has historically stood as a model bastion of debate, discourse, and dialog. Theories, postulates, and ideas thrive and die there. Students, I believe, have a dual responsibility to that vigor of campus life. They must both defend and respect it. Silencing voices to which they are opposed does neither.

And if, as some imply, the instigators were not members of the student body but rather outside agitators who sniffed out an opportunity to make headlines for their adopted causes, they should be forcefully removed from campus. They have no skin in this game other than their own self-aggrandizement.

It is likely that I won’t find many or even any topics of the day on which Coulter and I agree, except one. She should have been allowed to speak. Tenderness in this case is open ears.

And finally, there is the symbolism of the safety pin, which this country borrowed from our pals in Great Britain. The “safety pin movement” began in the wake of Britain’s vote to leave the European Union. Amid reports of post-Brexit hate crimes, the safety pin became an international symbol of tolerance and safety. Within days, the hashtag #safetypin was trending on Twitter. That phenomenon came and went before I had time to dig one to wear out of my own sewing kit. It cropped up in this country days after the election in November. Initially people who displayed a safety pin on their clothing proclaimed it a show of solidarity with groups of people whom the candidate, now president, had singled out for disparagement. Among them are women, LGBTQ folks, immigrants, people with disabilities, and minorities. And to a certain extent, it was prescient. The Southern Poverty Law Center has reported that hate groups have increased in number in each of the last two years, ending in 2016. Data for this year are, of course, not yet available. Common sense and an eye to national news would indicate, though, that the trend has not weakened.

The demise of the safety pin as a national symbol, however, was swift. Late in November some writers of color labelled it as the bystanders’ method of identifying themselves as not being racist. That seems harsh to me, but in the interest of tenderness, I’m trying to listen.

The safety pin, though, might be due for a reincarnation, this time as a symbol of tenderness. (Granted, this metaphor needs some work: sharp objects and tender thoughts aren’t easily linked.) And yet, it might work out in the long run.

Tenderness toward one another, even those with whom we disagree is a show of fortitude. At least this Pope thinks so. In this, I’m with the guy.

Maybe we could use a cotton ball?

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