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Now, do we really need a philosopher to reveal that bumper stickers are simplistic? Probably not. We know that bumper stickers are about declaration, not dialogue; even sticker-based arguments — like the Christian fish and its parody iterations or the dueling views on the Second Amendment via “Guns Don’t Kill People . . .” stickers and ripostes to it — seem designed to end conversations, not start them. Possibly the most revelatory research to date on the subject was a 2008 Colorado State University study concluding that drivers who put bumper stickers and other decorations on their vehicles are 16 percent more likely to engage in road rage. It wasn’t the message on the “territory markers,” as a researcher called bumper stickers in an interview with Nature News, but the number of them that “predicted road rage better than vehicle value, condition or any of the things that we normally associate with aggressive driving.”
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One answer is that a lot of people must care or there would be no such thing as bumper stickers. (And in my semidefense: Be honest, New Yorkers — what’s your base-line reaction to Jersey plates?) That doesn’t mean that my friend didn’t have a point, though: how much thought do we really put into the rather extraordinary number of identity signals that zoom by on highways or inch along in commuter traffic? It’s possible that from time to time a Misfits or McCain message hits its mark, and somebody, somewhere, gives a thumbs up to another driver. (It’s also plausible that some stickers inspire fellow motorists to extend another digit as a form of acknowledgment.) But the overwhelming majority of signals sent via bumper sticker almost certainly float unnoticed into the ether for the simple reason that nobody much cares. It’s sad, really.
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In addition to tribal-affiliation stickers — I Like This Band; I Root for That Sports Team; I Graduated From the Following Institution of Higher Learning — many bumper stickers attempt the more ambitious business of broadcasting some point of view on a matter of public contention, geopolitical policy or even a philosophical mode of being. It’s even more sad to conclude that nobody thinks about those either, but it turns out that somebody does or at least has: Jack Bowen, who teaches philosophy at Menlo School in Atherton, Calif. In a recent book called “If You Can Read This: The Philosophy of Bumper Stickers,” he not only thinks about bumper stickers but takes them seriously, evaluating the underlying worldviews they express.
Bowen concedes all this. But when he appears on radio call-in shows and the like to promote his book, he has learned that “people are really fired up about bumper stickers.” Tellingly, however, the people he hears from almost never engage him with counterinterpretations of their own stickers (or even admit to having them). Instead they want explanations for messages they find baffling — or aggravating. “My Child Is an Honors Student” turns out to be one message that ticks off a surprising number of people. As it happens, that one used to vaguely annoy Bowen too, but when he reflected on it for the book, he concluded that it was a perfectly reasonable thing to have on a car and not deserving of the “My Child Beat Up Your Honor Student” response stickers it has inspired.
Photo Credit From top: David McNew/Newsmakers/Getty Images; Tom Keck/Getty Images; Stephen J. Boitano/Getty Images; Ramzi Haidar/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images; Saul LoebAgence France-Presse — Getty Images; Eric Robert/Sygma/Corbis.
Consider, for example, the sticker “Against Abortion? Then Don’t Have One!” The political point of view there is obvious enough. But, Bowen says, if we delve deeper, we find the suggestion that morality itself is up for grabs, resolved on a person-by-person, situation-by-situation basis. “This is not at all what we want to say morality is,” he says. “It would make the idea of morality completely pointless.” He says he takes issue with about 70 percent of the broader conclusions implied by the many bumper stickers he evaluates.
A version of this article appears in print on June 6, 2010, on Page MM18 of the Sunday Magazine with the headline: Stuck on You. Today’s Paper|Subscribe
My friend Scott once laughed in my face when I told him I didn’t like driving a car with Massachusetts plates in Texas. I’m from Texas, you see, and when I visit my native state in a rental car, I don’t want to be mistaken for a Yankee. Scott, incredulous and logical, pointed out that it really didn’t make the slightest difference what inferences drivers on the roads I traveled might make about my geographical roots, insofar as I would never have any real-life dealings with them. Who cares what strangers in other cars think about you?
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Still, the general reaction to this benign message suggests that when the signals we send are noticed, we might not be happy with how they’re received. This brings us to the most puzzling sticker Bowen evaluates: “Don’t Judge Me.” He argues that passing judgment is not such a bad thing. But this sticker struck me as an even more extreme version of my own silly worries about license-plate signifiers: why would someone go out of the way to demand neutrality from strangers? And yet this beguiling paradox of a message might capture what bumper stickers are really about. Probably no one thinks about the signals sent along the highway more than those sending them. And bumper stickers are all about announcing judgments, not accepting them.