Monday, April 23, 2012

Bumper Sticker Logic

 While driving through town today, I pulled up behind a car sporting the following bumper sticker: "My sh**** attitude is none of your f****** business."  Except there were no asterisks, and now it was my business.  In fact, it was the business of everybody who pulled up behind that particular car.  It immediately became my business because it's the kind of publicly displayed message that makes my 12-year-old look away with embarrassment as he reads it, and makes me hope my 6-year-old in the back seat doesn't use that sentence to work on his phonics.

 My initial annoyance at the lack of social grace was momentary, but I became increasingly bothered by the bad thinking.  The bumper sticker makes no sense. The slogan is just a condensed way of saying, "I am going to make you pay attention to something that is none of your business, and then get angry and swear at you because you don't ignore my passive aggressive obnoxiousness."

I am convinced we have become a society that ponders serious issues without much more than bumper sticker depth. Unfortunately, the supporting evidence is everywhere.

"What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas."  This one tops my list, because so many other equally foolish statements find confirmation here.  Does this mean the expense tabs, the debt, the compromises of morality, the memories, and the hotel towels all actually, truly stay there?  The Hangover was a morally bankrupt movie, but even Hollywood had the decency to show a little bit of a ripple effect.

 The Vegas slogan is a brilliant ad campaign - who wouldn't want a free pass on anything they do for a couple days?  The problem is, it's just not true.  What would happen if a plaintiff said to the judge, "You know, what happened in my car while I was driving drunk should stay in the car."  Or if a skydiver kept muttering, "What happens in the air stays in the air."  Uh, no.  What happens anywhere happens in real life; it matters. There are no free passes.

"What happens in the privacy of my bedroom is nobody's business," and its close cousin, "Keep the government out of my bedroom." 
Let's be honest. What we are really saying is this: "I want to live in a nation where everybody agrees that any sexual action in which we (specifically 'I') engage in privately is okay, and won't have any effect outside of the moment."  But that's not true.
While usually (hopefully) done in private, sex is not an inherently private act.  The results of sexual activity impact the world.  To some degree, that does make it the business of other people. Extreme cases make the case clearly.  Was what Coach Sandusky did our business?  What about cases of incest? Pedophilia? Rape? Does a sexual act done behind a closed door suddenly become sacrosanct, or automatically mean the government has no business getting involved?
Take criminal activity away, and the slogans are still not true.  Perfectly legal activities that occur behind closed doors sometimes result in children, diseases, or deeply wounded people - and there is a ripple effect in society that involves other people.
It's a one-word different twist on the bumper sticker: "My ***** sexual attitude is none of your ****** business."  But that's simply not true.  Sex effects people emotionally, physically, financially, relationally, and all those things have in impact around us. The community will be asked in some fashion to help pick up the pieces if lives are broken in any of those ways.
Please read this carefully. My point here is not about the government controlling the sex lives of other people.  My point is that, unlike the claim of the bumper sticker, sex is not an inconsequential act. The claim that an individual's sex life can be separated from the cultural and legal realities around him or her is simply not true.
What happens in privacy or in a bedroom - whether it be legal or illegal, consensual or forced - has implications that reach far beyond the home. What happens in the bedroom does not stay in the bedroom.  It's just not the way life works.

"Don't like abortion?  Don't have one." How would you respond to someone who said any of the following:
  • "Don't like cannibalism?  Don't eat anyone." 
  • "Don't like spousal abuse? Don't hit yours."
  • "Don't like drowning puppies?  Keep yours alive!"
  • "Don't like pollution?  Then don't pollute!"
  • "Don't like the 1%? Then don't get rich!"
 All these examples use the same line of reasoning.  The core argument of those who are against abortion, cannibalism, spousal abuse, drowning innocent animals, pollution, and economic injustice is that the act is wrong, no matter who does it.  People don't take stands on these issues because they want to somehow coerce others into merely sharing their preferences; they are passionate because they believe there are objectively right and wrong things in the world, and we all ought to participate in the good no matter what our personal preferences or inclinations. To respond by saying, "Well, just don't do it yourself" is a refusal to engage in serious discussion about serious issues.

"War is Terrorism."  Here is the definition of 'war" from Merriam Webster: "a state of usually open and declared armed hostile conflict between states or nations (2) : a period of such armed conflict."  Here is the definition of terrorism: "The systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion." They are not the same thing.
I am not defending war or terror here. A world in which neither is practiced or needed would be ideal. But to make the claim that they are equivalent exposes very bad thinking.  Hitler did not declare war on the Jews (by Webster's definitions); he terrorized them. The nations that defeated Nazi Germany were not terrorist nations; they were nations that declared war. To suggest that there is no moral distinction between Hitler's persecution of the Jews and a coalition of nations defeating a genocidal dictator  suggests an inability to see the world in a way that is morally coherent.
Acts of terror may be committed by bad people during the course of a war; the "systematic use of terror" may cause  a war.  But they are not the same thing.  Schindler's List is not V for Vendetta.

"Why do we kill people who kill people to show people that killing is wrong?" Let's say a felon kidnaps a person and imprisons them in a basement for a year. This felon is caught and sentenced to jail.  Would we then need a slogan, "Why do we imprison people who imprison people to show imprisonment is wrong?"  The point of the justice system is to punish guilty people for what they have done to innocent people. It may or may not send a message to others, but the core issue is justice, not role modeling.
This slogan is confusing because it uses words with multiple definitions. Here is clearer version of the slogan: "Why does the government hold a formal trial that sometimes results in the execution of murderers in order to show people that the murder of innocent people is wrong?"
That's more accurate but still misleading, because it suggests that the point of punishment is only to act as deterrent. But that's not necessarily true.  I would argue the government's use of the death penalty is an attempt to send this message:  "The government holds a formal trial that sometimes results in the execution of murderers. If you are the kind of person who is willing to unlawfully take the life of an innocent human being, you forfeit your right to live."  Surely the value and protection of innocent human life is a marker of the moral health of a society.

My point has nothing to do with whether or not capital punishment is right.  It may well be a bad way to show justice.  My point is that throwing out simplistic slogans using ambiguous terms to muddy a significant moral dilemma is illogical and irresponsible.

And finally, I have prepared a list of responses for those who disagree with me:
  •    "My stupid post is none of your business!"
  •    "What happens on my blog stays on my blog."
  •    "Don't like this blog?  Don't read it."
  •    "Why do you criticize bloggers who criticize other people to show that criticism is wrong?"
I won't respond like that, of course.  I'll be too busy driving through town, trying to wrap my mind around a picture of a Darwin fish eating a Jesus fish  pasted next to a CoExist sticker on the bumper of nice car (made by the 1%) whose owner proudly lays claim to being part of the 99%.

Now that's serious discourse.


  1. Great post Anthony. Ideological bumper stickers (even Christian ones) are worthless, in my opinion. There are some ideas that should not be put in one or two word stickers for other people to see.

  2. Agreed. Soundbite philosophy is a bad idea.

  3. Entertaining and thoughtful post. Great combination. I love the finish. "What happens on my blog stays on my blog" Too funny!

  4. Brilliant post Anthony! I don't think it is proper to post ideological bumper sticker on your bumpers because even though it is not our goddamn business but there are time you can't avoid your child will read it and it is not good for them.

  5. When I read this archived Cyanide and Happiness comic, I thought immediately of this article and came back to comment.

  6. Yep. That comic has the right idea :)