Thursday, September 21, 2006

More on Bumper Stickers

I have posted before on the stupidity of political and religious bumper stickers. But today - in light of some comments I posted on the hypothetical imperative yesterday - I've had occasion to rethink some of this.

On the way to school I noticed a bumper sticker that said "Ignoring Jesus is choosing Hell!" on the back of a beat-up old Toyota. And it reminded me of what I'd written yesterday - about how choices, even bad choices, have meaning. Lighting up a cigarette does indeed mean that the person smoking it values something it gives him more highly than bodily health. It doesn't necessarily mean he's thought through his decision, but it does mean that, at that moment, the "weight" given to matters of health is less than the "weight" given to satisfying a craving.

Well, this bumper sticker seemed to be saying something similar. We're given a choice: either embrace Jesus or go to Hell. And in that paradigm, then ignoring Jesus would indeed be "choosing" Hell. Now, we could well ask ourselves what kind of a moron, faced with the choice of saying "I accept Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior" or burning in hellfire for all eternity, would honestly choose hellfire? But this is exactly the point: the sticker is meant to shock people who have been complacent about their faith into remembering the dire consequences that the God of Love provides for those who do not freely choose to accept His Grace.

It's exactly like smoking, right? There aren't a whole lot of advantages to smoking, really. A minor buzz, an excuse to talk to random people - maybe some free weight loss if you do it a lot. The health consequences, in contrast, can be huge. True, some people are mysteriously immune, but for the most part if you smoke a lot you can count on lung and heart problems in old age. NOT fun! Not to mention, it's expensive. A pack-a-day habit totals well over $1000/yr. So smoking seems like a dumb thing to do - and yet people do it. Is this evidence that people can't really make rational decisions, as Dennett seems to want to say, that "rationality" is a bad description for what we do? Well, probably not. I think most people would rather say that it's just a matter of the smoker not actively thinking about the consequences of smoking when he takes a drag. Health effects are a gamble, and they're anyway a long way down the road. No one cigarette makes a difference, so it's understandable that smoke-by-smoke not a whole lot of thought goes into it.

Same thing with Jesus. Hell is only something that happens after you die, so if you're young and healthy you might not pay too much attention to it. Yeah, sure, choosing Christ is the smart choice, but if I do that now, when it's not so important, I might feel obligated to go to church, or give to the poor, or not get drunk, and that's all such a drag. And so we put it off.

What was interesting to me was that this bumper sticker seemed like a useful thing -- provided you believe in Jesus. (To the rest of us, of course, it's not even a false dichotomy. There's no Jesus, and there's no Hell, so more than being a false representation of the problem, the problem itself is just fantasy.) And that sort of goes against my theory that all such bumper stickers and buttons are a waste of time.

So then I wondered if there might not be other examples, and I found that there were. One that I could think of was this poster, which was popular in the buildup to the invasion of Iraq. In large letters, it says "War has Never Solved Anything." And so from a distance it looks like that's all it says. There's also some small writing at the top, but from a distance you'd be inclined to dismiss that as the protest organization name, or maybe "Dear Pres. Bush," or some such. But when you get closer you find that what it actually says is "Except for ending slavery, Fascism, Nazisim and Communism..."

So there's a rational argument being presented here. The argument sort of assumes that people reading the sign are opposed to the war for irrational reasons - which is fair enough because I think a lot of people were. Being opposed to the war because you think it will be too expensive or will damage American diplomatic credibility, or because you feel the cost in human suffering is out of proportion to the expected gains - these are all, of course, completely rational reasons to oppose the war. But a lot of war opponents at least stated their argument as though it was the idea of going to war itself that was bad - which is probably not a very serious opinion. No one likes war (even people who support wars for personal financial gain presumably wouldn't fight one themselves if they could help it) - but sometimes fighting a war is arguably a better idea than leaving a situation alone. Whatever the reader thinks about that assertion, though, it's clear that lots of people opposed to the war in Iraq had idealized notions of the issues involved. Bush, who is the Devil (or else heavily manipulated by Cheney, who is the Devil), wants war because he's evil, and good people oppose all war because war is always evil and has never done anything good for anyone. Such people presumably know that wars have been fought to end slavery, fight fascism, fend off invasion, etc. They just choose not to think about that because it would ruin their easy dichotomy. So the point of this poster is not to let them get away with the charade. It reminds them what they already know but don't want to admit, the same way the bumper sticker about Jesus reminds Christians what they already "know" but are dragging their feet about.

However, ultimately few bumpers stickers and simple posters will be persuasive. For example, the poster linked above will not go very far in convincing people who do have rational reasons to oppose the war and who have not forgotten that war sometimes accomplishes good things (or else have reason to believe that it never does over and above not liking Bush and not wanting this particular war).

The thing about pacifism is interesting, though. One thing the professor who teaches the class I TA likes to do in class is to ask the students how it is that politicians persuade us to go to war. He seems to think that this is a kind of justification for the whole course - as though all wars are ultimately the result of political persuasion. Without clever use of language, they would never be fought, or some such. But I have sort of the opposite opinion. Fighting has been going on a lot longer than there's been language. Sure, it is sometimes motivated through use of language. But I don't think that wars only happen because there are linguistically talented politicians. I think, in fact, that politicians coincide with the only possibility for eventually eliminating war: civilization.

Now, granted, the development of civilization has led to wars much more terrible than the ones fought before we formed cities and societies. So there's a definite weakness to this argument I'm presenting. But I'm not arguing that wars don't happen for stupid reasons now. I'm simply arguing that all hope we have of ever eliminating war depends on forming the right kind of civilization. In large degree, I believe the wars we fight now are over flawed concepts of what civilization should be (socialist, fascist, etc.). In large part, hopes of eventually reaching the right kind of civilization will depend on fighting wars when they are necessary. When this is the case, the ability of politicians to convince us to go to war when we (vicerally) don't really want to can be a good thing. It can be a way that more civilized societies manage to survive against the barbarians who are, almost by definition, more willing to fight than we are.

Any politician presenting a case for war probably will indeed, as Dr. Obeng says, have to make a certain amount of use of clever language - because the lazy/default position is always to oppose war (it involves effort and suffering, things that people rightly try to avoid). But it is not clear that this is always a "trick" that the politician does to get us to do something that is not in our interest. To take a microcosmic example - if someone breaks into your home and you have a gun, then I believe the moral thing to do is to use it. Lots of people will disagree with me here, but I think that people whose homes are invaded have no obligation whatever to try to minimize suffering on the part of the invader (as is the law in some European countries). Any arguments that they do are, I think, psychological avoidance tactics. We in civilization do not like to face the fact that violence exists in the world, and to avoid it we even go so far as to build fantastic arguments based on silly statistics that people who own guns are more likely to be harmed by their own gun than to harm someone else with it, etc. But this is precisely what I mean. These statistics are the circular result of the fact that people try to avoid violence, even when it is necessary - and are perversely used to further that self-deception - a vicious cycle. A person with a gun and the willingness to use it is, I suspect, highly unlikely to become the victim of his own gun in a home invasion.

Well, a similar principle applies to realistic societies. Wars should be avoided - but crucially not at all cost. They should be avoided when unnecessary, too costly, immoral, etc. But they should not be avoided when the civilization itself is under threat. The longer they are delayed in the case of clear danger, the more costly in blood and treasure they generally turn out to be.

So it isn't a simple matter of wars always being the horrible side-effect of manipulative and self-serving politicians. Sometimes the politicians are doing us a favor by persuading us to do what is right. If the citizens want to free themselves from this dependence on the manipulations of politicians for the survival of their societies, they will have to face these issues more squarely and think about them more clearly. We will stop needing politicians only then when the public as a whole participates in good faith rather than voting their fantasies.

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