I do not simply read bumper stickers. I try to at least think about what they say. Some are quote straightforward, such as those for individual candidates or certain products. Others are only the slightest bit more complicated. Humorous quotes and pithy sayings require a little more attention but really have no complexity to them. Likewise with those that simply state a support of a cause or belief.
The challenging bumper stickers, from the point of view of the observer, are those which try to actually say something the driver wants others to think about, to consider. This is problematic because few things worth saying can be said in ten words or less.
Two stand out to me as particularly problematic, more so because I see them often. Both are quotes from other sources and both suffer from being shortened and removed from context.
The first is the nigh-ubiquitous Benny Franklin quote: “Those who give up a little liberty for a little security deserve neither and will loose both” or one of a dozen variations there of. Boy, where to start.
In it’s most popular incarnation (found all over the internet and in the hands of way too many high school and college students) it says that even the loss of a little liberty for the slightest security is bad. Well, so much for police. Of any stripe. Laws have to go. All of them restrict my liberty to do X, Y, and Z just so that I get the security of not having X, Y, and Z done to me.
Of course, anyone who actually knows Mr. Franklin is well aware of his predilection for actually saying things worth listening to. The original quote is, in fact “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety” (emphasis added). This creates a new set of questions (namely what constitutes essential liberty) but the grand problems of the former quote are eliminated.
The second quote is “Well behaved women seldom make history.” This is something of a staple in popular feminist movements but it is almost always seen outside of its context (originally an article by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich) and with out much connecting tissue. The idea of ‘making history’ is rather straightforward: the person who makes history has an effect on a large part of the world.
Well them, what the heck does this quote mean by “well behaved”? (I do not ask what Ulrich meant by it, but what the thousands of drivers mean by it as a bumper sticker.) Does it literally mean that the women who usually make history are those who insult their guests or the host at a meal, flinging pie around the room, and pouring wine on the table cloth? Because a quick study of any history book will show you that the women mentioned it are the ones who in fact do the opposite. A misbehaving woman, just like a misbehaving man, is quickly shuffled off to the side of history (unless they start killing or raping or going on some other crime spree, but I doubt that’s the kind of history the slogan is going for).
So these woman are in fact ‘well behaved.’ But when we see this bumper sticker we already have some idea of what is meant. ‘Well behaved’ is implied to mean ‘those who simply follow the rules that tell them not to make history.’ The feminist myth (and by myth I mean founding belief, not necessarily something untrue) is that men got power and used that power to make sure women never got power. Thus to have power women have to break the structure of men’s power. And those women are not ‘well behaved.’ (One would then have to answer the question as to why the most famous woman in history and of the past century have certainly been ‘well behaved.’ There is no way one could deny this moniker to the Blessed Virgin or Mother Teresa, and both have most certainly made history.)
There are a thousand questions growing out of that last paragraph but it hopefully well makes my point: we like to use simple quotes which do not mean what we think they mean. Too much of our discourse has degraded into throwing these quotes around and we need to pause, take a step back, and ask ourselves what these phrases actually say and whether we are, in fact, willing to say it.