Sticking It to Bumper Stickers
Think for a second about how social media has changed the way people interact with one another; websites like Facebook and Twitter have provided a highway of free expression. People can express their views openly and confidently without much concern about what someone with an opposing view might think. As a result, said websites are teeming with opinions. Sure, there are some benefits to having means to express one’s values freely and openly, however this becomes problematic when the act of expression closes off the possibility for conversation. When people are flooded with personal opinions, as seen on the likes of Facebook and Twitter, there is no conversation or even a healthy debate. There is only opinion. This phenomenon is not limited, nor began, with social media. Yet, there is another medium for the use of language to convey people’s values and identities: the bumper sticker.
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As much as social media plays a central role in the lives of many Americans, the bumper sticker has become a vehicle for strong public expression. Almost nowhere else in this society can people show their feelings to such a large audience with so little effort. Partisan politics may have once been the basis of bumper sticker content, especially after World War II and at the height of the Cold War when propaganda was so pertinent. Yet nowadays, just a quick glance at parked cars shows that a broad range of themes exist (Newbagen). Whether it be advice on driving etiquette – “Brighten my day, get off the road” – existential commentary – “A bad day at the beach beats a good day at the office” – or comments about U.S. foreign policy -, bumper stickers provide a window into a person’s political, philosophical, and socioeconomic ideologies. Bumper stickers themselves are not problematic for society. However, similar to social media, bumper stickers don’t elicit conversation and instead spark controversy, society grows more and more divided. Expressing opinions publicly has become a gauntlet of disaster. Society’s problem with public display of opinion is growing because bumper stickers spark controversy and contribute to an argumentative environment. Since the definition of success in this environment is based on one-upmanship and/or criticism, the path to bringing people back together starts with using value in oneself as a means of expression rather than expressing one’s values.
The controversy created by bumper stickers is rooted in the philosophy behind bumper stickers. First, the motivation behind using bumper stickers must be uncovered. People are always trying to make their beliefs and values known. Somehow, by projecting one’s beliefs and values to the outside world an identity crisis is averted. A person needs the world to know what he stands for in order to reach a self-understanding. Bumper stickers allow for this expression. Have a kid on the honor roll? Great! Put on that bumper sticker and tell the world. Fan of sports team X? Perfect! There’s a bumper sticker for that. Voting Democrat in the next election? Might as well use the back of the car to show exactly that. These stickers represent a unique paradox. On the one hand, they are distinctly personal, attached to the owner’s car for friends to see. On the other hand, they are anonymous. The vast majority of readers are unknown to the bearer of the sticker. This allows for the expression of highly personal opinions about strongly held views to a large audience without any commitment to interact with them. This combination of personal statement and anonymity provides the opportunity for the expression of public emotion not usually available to ordinary people in their daily routine, ultimately giving way to create controversy. Yes, bumper stickers are short, catchy, and seemingly harmless, but because of their nature they contribute to a growing problem in society. This can be seen through the concept known as “bumper sticker philosophy,” (Haussmen). Basically, the bumper sticker philosophy is that because bumper stickers are such short messages, it is impossible to fit an entire philosophy or ideology on the back of your car. It is simply not possible to tell the entire story. The ideology shown is only superficial. Going along this line of reasoning, this allows bumper stickers to oversimplify social issues. People see them in a hurry and there’s no time to digest the argument. Bumper stickers don’t bring forth conversation, but rather end the conversation with a cursory position on any given issue.
This controversy has created a hostile, argumentative environment which is dividing society more and more. Because the ideology shown on a bumper sticker is superficial, the reaction to seeing a bumper sticker is most likely also superficial. After all, how can an onlooker derive an entire ideology or philosophy from such a short message. The reactions are knee-jerk, pure gut instinct. Take for example a story from Denise Grier. Her son was threatened jail time for not removing a bumper sticker that read “Bush sucks. Dick Cheney too” (Haynsworth). Clearly, Grier’s son was expressing his political beliefs and the police had an alternative opinion. There is nothing wrong or problematic with having different viewpoints, especially when it comes to politics. There was no conflict until the bumper sticker evoked a knee-jerk reaction. Because there was only a bumper sticker and a reaction, and no discussion, a conflict was created. People display bumper stickers to either connect to a community or to argue against one, but because there isn’t a complete ideology which causes an instinctive violent, judgmental reaction, a connection can’t be formed and society slips farther apart.
There are, however, benefits to having an argumentative environment; one that fosters conversation and debate. Society needs opposing viewpoints in order to progress. The world was flat until someone questioned it. Furthermore, there is a connection between expression and identity. Hilde Lindemann, in her book Holding and Letting Go: The Social Practice of Personal Identities, articulates, “To have lived…as a person is to have taken my proper place in the social world that lets us make selves of each other,” (159). Lindemann here identifies why being an individual with personal beliefs matters morally, why it deserves closer philosophical attention, and also why it is so dependent on the many interpersonal practices of empathetic recognition through which people can see each other as their own person. Individuality and personhood are not qualities that one can seek and find within a particular human specimen. Instead, personhood is something people reify through actions, attitudes, and attunements toward others. Both socially and morally, people judge others and hold them in certain lights. Identities are maintained through stories about what matters most to a given person; his loves, hates, commitments, and so on. The moral personhood of individuals is then very different from the one envisioned by supporters of the view that personhood is just a collection of qualities or attributes that add up to something more than the sum of their parts; or, as a designation that does not refer to much of anything in particular, other than a desire for moral, social, and political recognition. Lindemann suggests that missing the background conditions of how people become persons is precisely where philosophy has taken a wrong turn. In a non-trivial way, what and who people are is not constituted solely by a collection of reasoned positions or endorsed choices, but by moral communities that work to create, or to undo, themselves and their individual members. Lindemann describes the personal identity of individuals, “To describe a moral practice we engage in constantly, but that has not received much recognition as a moral practice: it is the practice of initiating human beings into personhood and then holding them there,” (ix). Lindemann is asserting that the acts of conversing and listening is fundamentally moral work that has the capacity to create the objects of its practices; but perhaps more relevant, also has the power to destroy.
The need to criticize or out-preform someone diminishes personal beliefs and values, however people need personal beliefs. Control over the ideas, symbols, and meanings within society are central to the control of society itself. In a scientific study, Charles Case notes, “The ruling ideas of each age have been the ideas of its ruling class.” This classical analysis of the role of ideology in the struggle for domination over society has evolved into the more recent concept of hegemony. Hegemony theory asserts that the ruling elite control all institutions which disseminate ideas and values. Schools, churches, youth organization, the mass media, among others, all produce false consciousness to facilitate the maintenance of political and economic control by the ruling elite. Attempts are often made to limit or eliminate means for self expression. These attempts are typically met with creative innovations and use of non-conventional vehicles for communication. Jail inmates, for example, who are stripped of most normal roles, statues, and means for interaction make heavy an effective use of tattoos to display affiliations, personal uniqueness, perspectives, and philosophies. Modern urban society is characterized by interactions among anonymous strangers and communications received through mass media sources. Within this environment, very few opportunities exist for individuals to contribute to the cultural store of ideas, symbols, and perspectives. This perspective of symbolic interaction describes how the display of symbols and relationships create social and self identity.
Through the acquisition and demonstration of desirable roles, values, and qualities, individuals seek to create and maintain an esteemed and acceptable self. Those whose abilities to define themselves are impaired by a predefinition imposed by society and are described as stigmatized. However, as seen in prison tattoos, public personal expression can also be used as a unifying power.
The unifying factor of personal beliefs lie in both the motivation behind and in the act of expression. In the modern age of mass communication and urban life, the means and methods available to influence the discourse of ideology and symbols have proliferated. Prison tattoos, underground newspapers, pirate radio stations, and graffiti are examples of opportunities for common citizens to affect their cultural environment. The perspectives of conflict and symbolic interaction suggest that people have a need or desire to communicate symbolic messages to the persons who share the same social environment. The history of human cultural development is intimately tied to the accumulated development of symbols, meanings, and ways to share these symbolic meanings among a growing range of sources and recipients. Therefore, the possibility exists that people use these symbols, such as bumper stickers, to progress society. However, within modern urban environments, most of the symbolic meanings encountered by individuals come from commercial mass-mediated sources (Case). This means face-to-face sources of interactions and ideas such as schools and churches allow relatively little opportunity for individuals to offer their unique perspectives. People are not really expressing their own beliefs, but rather beliefs from a marketplace. The bumper sticker is, after all, a product that is bought and sold. Bumper stickers show the influence of marketing language, with its colloquial, pseudo-informality. Public expression of opinions is thus part of the shifting relationship between culture and commerce that puts the consumer in a seemingly new position.
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This is where change can occur. It’s not possible to find one’s own personhood when one is buying his values and beliefs from a marketplace. The conundrum is that people find their identity by expressing their values and their beliefs; however, the values and beliefs that people are currently expressing are not coming from themselves. How does that make sense? How can someone realistically make their own identity from an ideology that is not his own? Quite literally, people are getting value from the wrong place. People have become reflections of what society wants them to be. This is why society is breaking down. A collection of individuals creates society. But when there are no individuals, there isn’t much of a society either. Creating more individuals is a step on the path to bringing people back together. Individuality can be formed when people recognize what they themselves believe in, not what something like a bumper sticker tells them to believe in. Therefore, this change must come from people. This is an issue about expression and identity. Something like outlawing bumper stickers wouldn’t really do much good – not to mention it’s not feasible either. No, this change will start with people looking inward for something to believe in, rather than outward for validation. When people look outward for validation, they are really looking for judgement; to be able to say that they fit in. However, if society was built by people who understand their personhood and believe in their own identity, they would be able to create their own society and thus eliminate the need to fit in. This in turn would stop people from expressing commercialized ideologies and would bring people closer together. The term “express yourself” might sound cliché, but it should be taken seriously. People just need to be themselves and understand who they really are.
Creating a society of more individualized people is a solid foundation to start bringing people back together, but change probably won’t be realized until people also change how they view others. People can have the same blood, brains, and emotions, but act hostile because they have different thoughts and opinions. People think being an individual means embracing what makes you different from society. While this can be an empowering thought for some, it has created a tear in society. Individuality should really lead to a path of connecting with others, not winning or losing or validation. Real personhood and individuality extends beyond valuing one’s own opinions. Society can’t come back together unless individuals are allowed to share their opinions without creating controversy.
Newhagen, John E., and Michael Ancell. “The Expression of Emotion and Social Status in the Language of Bumper Stickers.” Journal of Language and Social Psychology 14.3 (1995): 312-23. ProQuest. Web. 29 Nov. 2016.
Case, Charles E. “Bumper Stickers and Car Signs Ideology and Identity.” Journal of Popular Culture 26.3 (1992): 107. ProQuest. Web. 29 Nov. 2016.
Haussamen, Brock. “PUNS, PUBLIC DISCOURSE AND POSTMODERNISM.” Visible Language 31.1 (1997): 52. ProQuest. Web. 29 Nov. 2016.
Lindemann, Hilde. Holding and Letting Go: The Social Practice of Personal Identities. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2014. Print.
Haynsworth, Leslie. “My Volvo, My Self: The (Largely Unintended) Existential Implications of Bumper Stickers.” Fourth Genre 10.1 (2008): 21,34,200. ProQuest. Web. 29 Nov. 2016.
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