Monday, September 26, 2011

Bumper Stickers, Divisiveness, and Dialogue

I'm often both fascinated and discouraged by the bumper stickers that I read when I'm traveling. Bumper stickers are fascinating because they have the advantage of communicating a message to the world in a concise manner. They can be discouraging because that conciseness often means that a message comes off either more blunt, or perhaps even less clear, than might be helpful.

Consider for a moment this bumper sticker slogan: "I don't believe the liberal media!" I see this one all the time. Leaving aside whether an all-caps sentence conveys "yelling" on a bumper sticker the same way a similar statement would if typed online, there are at least a couple of ways to parse such a statement:
1. "I believe the media, in general. But if a media outlet has a liberal bias, I don't believe it."
2. "Media, in general, has a liberal bias. I therefore don't believe it, in general. I only believe what I consider to be exceptions to that general truth."
Leaving aside my own conviction that it is impossible to be completely "bias-free," I think a fascinating conversation could result by asking a person with a bumper sticker like this the question, "how, then, do you learn about the world around you?" If the person's attitude is more like #1, I have little doubt that the discussion would involve considering what media sources are the most reliable, which ones ought to be avoided, and why. If the attitude is more like #2, I am less hopeful for a productive conversation, because of the way such an attitude eliminates the vast majority of media outlets from consideration. And because I fear that more people with this bumper sticker are likely to think in "#2 terms," I'm unlikely to actually ask the question that might result in the fascinating conversation, which is discouraging.

I was reminded of the recent trend in online political discussions to become heated and divisive. A friend of mine has been moderating a forum on Facebook intended to allow for political discussion between friends of differing viewpoints. I've noticed that, when people who are friends (in the "real"—versus the "Facebook"—sense of the term) make an argument, even if it's from a strident position different from my own, I'm far more likely to engage it and take it seriously than I am when it comes from someone I am not friends with. In these cases, I find that I either try to "score points" with cheap shots, or I withdraw from the conversation altogether knowing that the "point-scoring" method not only won't yield productive arguments, but in fact it reflects poorly on me.

It's long established that people respond differently to such discussions behind the "anonymity" of the Internet, and that this is at least partly to blame for the increasingly toxic nature of our political dialogue. But I hadn't considered the fact that this phenomenon has existed, perhaps on a smaller scale, since before the Internet became so popular. Bumper stickers have been playing this "point-scoring" game between anonymous followers of political ideology for decades. Even when a sticker might have something valid to say (and many do), or when a meaningful dialogue might result from discussing an issue raised by one, the nature of bumper stickers means that we seldom have either the opportunity nor the inclination for these discussions to ever actually take place.

There are a few folks online (notably Bruce Reyes-Chow and David LaMotte, but there are others) who I've noticed have a gift for engaging in these kinds of discussions with such respect that I feel that the dialogue partners from "the other side of the aisle" are being treated as "friends we haven't met yet." Even when the statements start out strident and heated, these people are able to respond with openness to understanding the point of view behind it. This is not a talent I've cultivated as well as I'd like, but I'm glad for their example.


  1. I like the idea of discussing the ideas of bumper stickers with their owners, but I rarely find those kinds of conversations productive. Most everyone has their beliefs and is going to stick with them no matter what.

  2. Part of this gets to my reflections on how well I know the person. I'm not about to approach a person I don't know for such a conversation (and not just because I agree with you about the lack of productivity of such discussions).

    But if I'm friends with the person, the chance for productive discussion--even in the midst of disagreement--goes way up.



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