I don't believe in putting bumper stickers on my car.
The caveat here, before I explain myself, is that I don't care if you want to put bumper stickers on your car. Do it as much as you want. It is a matter of personal expression, and I am cool with that. But I don't put them on mine -- I guess you could say that an unadorned bumper is my personal expression.
It isn't that I don't appreciate a well-turned, pithy statement. I am fond of KILL YOUR TELEVISION. I like very much WHO ARE YOU TO TELL ME TO QUESTION AUTHORITY? I wholeheartily agree with LOVE THEM BOTH. I have a special appreciation for outrageously large window decals of Our Lady of Guadalupe. You have a lovely stick figure family.
I just ... don't want such things on the outside of my car. Not even the tiniest, most unobtrusive rosary sticker in the corner of a back window. Definitely not anything political. There may be a sticker out there that I would be comfortable putting on my car, but I have not yet seen it.
Once, without consulting me, Mark put a sticker on the Volkswagen supporting a particular vote on a local ballot-initiative. Given that he knew I was planning to vote the same way he was, I think he was probably surprised by how annoyed I was that I had to drive around town in a car with a political bumper sticker on it. I made sour faces, I drove the minivan instead as much as possible for the next several weeks, and I made him peel it off the car on the first Wednesday in November. I didn't just feel annoyed about it, I felt unreasonably angry, and I spent a lot of time behind the wheel trying to articulate to myself why. I didn't quite come to an answer.
The other morning when Minneapolis and St. Paul woke up to the viral video of Phil Castile dying of five bullets in the front seat of his car while a panicked policeman shrieked "Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!" I briefly wondered -- as I have wondered about various political and philosophical statements over the years as they became timely -- if it was maybe time to get a Black Lives Matter sticker. Some of my neighbors have the signs in their front yards. I don't mind signs in my yard as much, we've had candidate signs in the yard and that has never bothered me. I wondered very idly if I, bearing such a sticker, might be more likely to be pulled over. I wondered, too, if the same neighbors would see such a thing with appreciation or with derision, now that virtue-signaling is A Thing.
Two days later after the five Dallas murders I waded into one too many comment sections and I knew from my reaction to them that however sympathetic I may be to #BlackLivesMatter -- and even though I could still do the yard sign thing, like I said, I don't have the same feeling about yard signs -- I wasn't going to put any bumper stickers on my car, not of any sort. And I think I have figured out why.
It isn't that I don't want you to know what I think.
It's that I don't want you to think you know what I think.
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Last December Ken White, an attorney who blogs at Popehat, published an op-ed in the L. A. Times about "culture-bundling." He was writing about the unproductivity of most debates about gun control -- and it's a useful contribution to the discussion on that subject, too -- but what really stuck with me was just one of his three points, namely, the "bundling" concept. Bear with me, I know this passage uses gun control as its example, but I'm quoting it not for that particularity but because of the general concept that I have underlined.
We culture-bundle when we use one political issue as shorthand for a big group of cultural and social values. Our unproductive talk about guns is rife with this. Gun control advocates don't just attack support for guns; they attack conservative, Republican, rural and religious values. Second Amendment advocates don't just attack gun control advocates; they attack liberal, Democratic, urban and secular values. The gun control argument gets portrayed as the struggle against Bible-thumping, gay-bashing, NASCAR-watching hicks, and the gun rights argument gets portrayed as a struggle against godless, elitist, kale-chewing socialists.
That's great for rallying the base, I guess, but that's about all. When you culture-bundle guns, your opponents don't hear “I'm concerned about this limitation on rights” or “I think this restriction is constitutional and necessary.” They hear “I hate your flyover-country daddy who taught you to shoot in the woods behind the house when you were 12” and “Your gay friends' getting married would ruin America and must be stopped.” That's unlikely to create consensus.
The original blog post , not bound by external editorial standards, uses a bit more colorful language. I think I prefer it. About an example of a pro-gun-control meme, White writes,
The intended message may be "fuck the people who don't seriously debate gun control because they accept vast campaign donations and they are afraid of NRA-led primary attacks and who refuse to even consider whether there's something we can do about madmen spraying crowds of innocents with bullets." But your message is "fuck you and your flyover-country Daddy teaching you to shoot in the woods behind the house when you were twelve and fuck the church you went to afterwards."
And about an example of a pro-gun-rights meme,
Your intended message may be "the government doesn't get to determine my rights based on its assessment of what I 'need," nor do fellow citizens who may arbitrarily determine I don't 'need' a wide variety of things based on their concerns." But what you are conveying is that "the people who want gun control are God-hating, kale-chewing, coastal-elite socialists who want to imprison your pastor for not marrying gays."
I encourage you to read the whole thing there.
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Even for straightforward messages that one might think could not be misinterpreted, the phenomenon of culture-bundling means that people are tempted to make assumptions about each other. The Jesus Fish drags a trail of associations behind it like so much grimy seaweed. The Black Lives Matter sticker is smugly, mentally, made to bow and scrape as a mere corollary to All Lives Matter. Every car can be neatly shunted into the left and right lanes.
Such assumptions are not warranted, ever.
No. They are not warranted. Not ever. The environmental-responsibility sticker doesn't also mean "People are bad and abortion is good." The second-amendment sticker doesn't also mean "Gay marriage is an oxymoron." The Jesus-loves-you sticker doesn't also mean "Keep evolution out of the schools." The support-our-troops sticker doesn't also mean "I -heart- the death penalty." The opinions behind the strawmen may be correlated one way or another, but human persons are not correlations.
The assumptions aren't warranted. They aren't warranted because when we make them we are seeing a human being as an object: an object of our own self-gratification, the pecular good feeling because it reinforces all the things we already think.
Bumper stickers tempt people to see each other as objects.
Bumper stickers tempt people away from compassion and toward derision.
And that is not even counting the occasional sticker that actually expresses something that's not just unpopular, a minority opinion, or countercultural, but actually vile.
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And what about Christian witness? Have I got something against proclaiming Jesus Christ on the outside of my vehicle?
Yes, I do. I do not deserve to prominently display the Holy Name on the outside of my car. I have a lead foot. I have a big scrape on my minivan door where I hit a pole in the co-op parking lot on the day before Thanksgiving. I accidentally cut people off while shouting at squabbling kids. The best I can do for a justifiably pissed-off fellow commuter is that super-apologetic "Sorry! My bad!" wave. I don't think my displaying a Queen of the Rosary sticker is going to do either the Queen of the Rosary, or myself, or the guy leaning on his horn, any good in that moment. My mishap may do more damage because of it.
There are shades here of Luke 18:9-14. Being a Christian behind the wheel should mean driving with awareness, attention, and courtesy, not driving the right car or having the right sticker. I need the mercy of God inside my car.
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And the world needs the mercy of God outside it, too, which is one reason I don't want to tempt anyone to think nasty thoughts. There are plenty of other places to speak the truth: places where, unlike on the bumper of my car, I get to speak the whole truth, put things in context, show my face, be seen as a whole person and not a hashtag.
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. We have seen that this week, to our national grief.