Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Cultural Bird Droppings

Many things are strictly American; bumper stickers may be right at the top. They are an interesting phenomena: pithy statements that give insight into the values, interests and loyalties of the car owner. The subject matter varies widely, and the number a single vehicle sports gives a clue to the vehemence of the driver's opinions and passions. They range emotionally from humorous to in-your-face aggressive insistence. Sometimes the combination of numerous ones on a single bumper reveals the thoughtfulness (or lack of it) in the person's views. Some never fail to irritate me for their sheer superficiality--like COEXIST, written in all different religious symbols, or VISUALIZE WORLD PEACE. Of course, a very clever person followed that one up with VISUALIZE WHIRLED PEAS--what a hoot.

The one thing about bumper stickers that I find most curious, it that they happen to be on car bumpers. You may ask, "Well, where else would they be?", but that is not what I'm getting at. There is a quasi-anonymity to posting something on your car. You get to have your say, and no one can talk back. Other drivers only get a brief moment to read them, and then the opinion-expresser has turned the corner, never to be encountered again. Yet, there you are, with that person's opinion splattered on your brain, as messily as a bird dropping on your windshield. You can't retaliate if you disagree, so it just sits there and annoys you till you wipe it off.

Rude and profane ones only reflect back on the person posting them. Somehow it doesn't make me want to introduce myself. One is always wary with a person who intentionally and belligerently lays it out there. It is my observation that in the political realm of bumper stickers, the Democratic/liberal/rude/profane ones seem to out number the Republican/conservative/rude/profane ones by a ratio of at least ten to one. (I'm really being generous to the Dems by using that ratio, because off the top of my head, I can't recall any rude/profane conservative bumper stickers.) It makes sense--a liberal isn't as tied to traditional polite manners. A conservative by nature is more reserved. Each time I encounter a disrespectful, slanderous, or vulgar political bumper sticker, the feeling of getting pooped on returns, and that, my friend, is probably the exact intent of the individual who posted it.


John Lynch said...

Your hypothesis could be correct, but I would caution that there are a whole host of biases that could skew general conclusions from your selective sample. In particular, you live near Ann Arbor, which means that you are going to encounter more progressives and more outspoken progressives than in other areas. It's even a college town, and I don't think it's a stretch to theorize that college students are more likely to have inflammatory bumper stickers no matter their particular political persuasion. You'd have to see what bumper stickers look like in a strongly conservative area before you could even establish a correlation between political view and rudeness of bumper sticker. And then, of course, there are the standard biases: confirmation, convenience, etc.

I would also note that one could easily reason the other way: stereotypically, progressives are over-worried about causing offense, while conservatives are politically incorrect jerks. Thus, we could also expect that progressives would have generally more reserved bumper stickers and conservatives would have generally more rude ones.

I do not think that progressives are in general more rude than conservatives. Certainly, I would want to see actual data before leaping to that conclusion.

L. H. Lynch said...

I am pretty sure that half of the pro-life bumper stickers I see don't offend me only because I agree with them. In fact, there are several that annoy me a lot every time I see them because I can't help but feel that, if I were pro-choice, I would be very offended.

Your middle paragraph, however, I very much agree with. Very often, the problem with bumper stickers, at least the political ones, is that no one can reasonably expect them to change anyone's mind. Throw out something like "Abortion is murder," and even if you're telling the truth, all you're likely to do is set anyone who disagrees with out off on a rant that will take them down a long series of well-worn arguments that ends eventually in the conclusion that every assumption they ever made about people like you is absolutely justified by your bumper sticker. Is that really helpful?

That said, I think there are useful ways to employ bumper stickers.

1) Bumper stickers that do not consist of no more than "Vote No on B" or "Jack Lynch for Congress" will make no one but the most rabid fanatic angry with you. In large enough numbers they are helpful in that they bear witness to a large segment of the population who stand together on a particular issue.

2) Funny bumper stickers make me laugh. I am in favor of this.

3) Very, very rarely, you really can sum a simple truth into a single phrase. However, they tend to address larger philosophical ideas rather than specific issues. As I pointed out earlier, "Abortion is murder" is no more convincing to someone who disagrees with you than something that said "Women have the right to choose." However, something that made a statement pointing out the inherent contradiction in the statement "there are no absolutes" could honestly provide food for thought to someone willing to take the time.

Also, the "COEXIST" bumper sticker really is stupid. It reminds me of a book I listened to called "The Life of Pi." It was sort of good, except that the author was trying to promote the idea that one could be simultaneously a practicing Hindu, Catholic, and Muslim. Nice try, but I am pretty sure that ignores some of the most fundamental tenants of each faith involved.

Lisa said...

I knew that post would push buttons! But even taking Ann Arbor into account, (and its student body--many of which do not have cars and therefore are not driving around with bumper stickers for me to see) I stand by my opinion, and don't feel they are skewed
from my "selective sample." Having been to many Republican functions, and gotten acquainted with activists in the party, I have concluded that by the very nature of their conservatism, most would not put obnoxious bumper stickers on their cars. Add to that the fact that conservatives also stand by traditional values, and therefore they would include Christians who stand by the Bible and all it teaches, you are going to get a crowd that is reticent to use indecent language, and more willing to return rudeness with a soft answer.

I do agree that it is possible to only see what we want to see, and I will concede that there are probably bumper stickers out there that I would not consider offensive because they tell the truth that would really tick off someone who doesn't think they do. I do not like "Abortion is murder" style bumper stickers because I don't think they help women who have gotten abortions, and probably only harden hearts more firmly against a change. Remember that I gave a 10 to 1 ratio, and I would count that one in the 1 ratio part. I also believe that the patience and good manners of conservatives is at an all-time stretched-to-the-maximum level. The protest signs at the tea parties are going over the civility line, and I do expect some of them to show up on bumper stickers soon. But compare at election time: No Bama (wow! am I offended--not!) to the incredibly vicious insults Bush endured for four years.

John, I really don't get your second paragraph. I have seen not much of anything anywhere that would make me reason that progressives are overly-worried about causing offense, and much that confirms the other way. And I am not confining my conclusions to what I have read in bumper stickers. This is something that has bothered me for a long time, and many others have complained about the lack of civility in their liberal opponents. I am convinced that the Dems can dish it out, but they can't take it. That is why Ann Coulter annoys them so much. She talks like they do, and she makes the same point that I am: they are less civil and can dish it out, etc.

Finally, I am not against bumper stickers in general, and really enjoy the ones that make me laugh--even ones that are from people I would find no common ground with. Example from a Wiccan: My other vehicle is a broom.

John Lynch said...

You will forgive me if I'm skeptical about an analysis whose basic conclusion is that "us" are better people than "them." Every single "us" in the entire world believes this. Every single "us" has reasons why they believe this. This is why it is insufficient to generalize from one's personal experience.

What is it about my assertion that progressives are stereotypically over-worried about causing offense that confuses you? In general, progressives are the ones accused (by conservatives) of bowing to pressure to be politically correct. This political correctness stems from a desire to avoid offense at almost any cost. From there, it's pretty easy to generalize that a progressive would be less likely to have a rude bumper sticker than a conservative. I'm not saying this generalization is more right than yours (I don't think it is), just that it's entirely possible to use that type of reasoning in both directions.

The only way to answer this particular question is with data. We do not have data. Thus, it cannot be answered. The deep philosophical and epistemological questions raised by this discussion would receive insufficient treatment in this forum. Both these issues being essentially intractable, I'm going to refrain from continuing my argument any further.

Lisa said...

Yay! I get the last word... at least with John. Notice that I never offered data. I offered my observations. All this was stated as my biased opinion. We all have biases, and some things just are capable of being analyzed with data. In those cases, we observe, and we all make judgment calls. I'm open to being wrong. I just need some evidence to convince me.