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How Are You Saying It?

Bumper sticker sloganeering often drives us apart rather than pulls us together.

Most of us have probably seen one of those mini-vans with the rear window sticker depicting the cartoonish looking row of family members—presumably representing the make-up of the family to whom that particular mini-van belongs. The window sticker may include a dad, a mom, and two kids—one obviously older and one younger. It might be a line of four kids in gradually decreasing height, like stair steps, lined up next to their parents. Sometimes I’ve seen at the end of the row of those family members a dog or a cat.

A few questions come to mind when I think about those rear window families. Why don’t I ever see one in which the mom is taller than the dad or any of the older kids are taller than one of the parents? Why do I only see them on mini-vans? Are mini-van drivers the only ones who seem to have the need to inform other drivers about the make-up of their family? While mini-vans seem to be the place where these window stickers show up, why don’t they show up on the 12 or 15 passenger van in which the very large family rides? Is it because these stickers don’t come in a version for a family of eleven?

The cartoon family is not the only thing showing up in the rear window of mini-vans. All kinds of bumper sticker fare seems to find its way a bit north on the backs of mini-vans. I saw one several days back that has a strange tangential relationship to the rear window riding cartoon family.

I pulled into the passing lane to go by a mini-van and the short, bumper sticker slogan in the lower left corner of the back window (the place where you normally find a dad, mom, three kids, and pet depicted) caught my eye. It also caught my ire.

My anger wasn’t about the basic underlying idea being represented by the slogan. It was the condescending nature in which that message was conveyed, as well as the potential inferred connotation subtly embedded in the six derisive words. The driver of that mini-van possibly never thought about his rear window sticker that way, but perhaps that’s the problem.

So what did it say? “Can’t feed ‘em? Don’t breed ‘em.”

At one level, few would disagree that it is wise to only have as many children as can be properly supported: First and foremost for the sake of the children; then secondarily, for the sake of the impact on the rest of society—not just economically but even more so sociologically.

But why does this bit of wisdom need to be communicated in the manner in which it is on that window sticker? What resentments are laden within the sentiment of how it was stated? How valued as people are the moms to whom it is directed by its equating them with animals? What attitude toward children in families receiving welfare is conveyed? And what racial overtones (i.e. language that feels akin to the “welfare queen” label) are even more subtly buried within this crass language?

If you were a struggling single mom with five children, how would you feel passing that mini-van? If you were one of the five children of that struggling single mom, what would you think as you read the window sticker? If you were a member of a large black family that is trapped in poverty, how might you read the message rolling down the highway on the rear window of a mini-van?

My mother often notes, “You can be right and still be wrong.” Another of her frequent quips is, “It’s not what you say, but how you say it.” Doesn’t the rhetoric in the rear window of the mini-van I passed several days back qualify under my mother’s analysis? What else of our discourse hangs by a tenuous thread to some fact or point of wisdom and yet is filled with antipathy, class and racial division, arrogance, or some other ugliness that drives us apart rather than pulls us together?

Could it be that more than a few of us would be well advised to get out a razor blade and some Goo Gone to scrape off a bumper sticker (window sticker for you mini-van owners) or two?

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J. Drew Stefancin June 29, 2012 at 05:34 PM
Craig, bumper stickers with a message are infuriating. Why people feel the need to share an opinion nobody asked for that will certainly irritate half of the people who see it is beyond me. You want to put a Rolling Stones bumper sticker on your car - that's hideous and baffling, but at least it doesn't upset anyone. I feel the same way about "T-shirts that say things", as I put it. The ones you see in catalogue's - like "Some people are alive because it's illegal to shoot them." That's not funny. Or clever. You just look aggressive. Or passive aggressive. And aggressive-aggressive. Bumper stickers that state some outrageous opinion are polarizing and just plain rotten.
JR July 01, 2012 at 02:24 PM
I like these comments. You guys are correct.
lkt-s July 02, 2012 at 02:19 PM
Good article. Also, when I see the decals of all those kids, I think "wow, they're kinda alerting pedophiles and kidnappers". Bumper stickers/decals might make people upset enough to key your car or even stalk you..

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