On Bumper Stickers That Say 'Coexist'

(or Skipping the ‘Detail Work’ Needed for the Pursuit of Real Justice and Democracy)

I suspect you've seen them somewhere in your daily travels, especially if you live in, or near, a known bastion of liberal thought. I am referring to those blue bumper stickers with the word "COEXIST" spelled out in letters cleverly derived from the peace sign, the male and female gender signs, and most prominently, the symbols of the world's major spiritual traditions.

Great stuff. Right? What progressive could be against a message like this in a world where nationalistic, gender, and sectarian strife seem to be an ever more normalized part of reality?

Me, for starters.

Don't get me wrong. I am all for coexistence. As a person who has spent his adult life crossing and studying the boundaries between cultures, I am more convinced than ever that people of widely differing backgrounds do, in fact, have a large number of things in common and that, moreover, any serious effort to create a better world will be based on the conscious and repeated exaltation of these shared values.

So what's my problem?

I guess it is found in the comfortably distanced and purely exhortative nature of the message.

It is often said--and with a good deal of reason--that "words are cheap". But we also know that well-chosen words can be extremely healing and powerful. So, the key in verbal matters would seem to reside not so much, as some self-professed "pragmatists" would have it, in simply eliminating all but the most task-related forms of speech, but rather in seeing to it that meaningful messages predominate over frivolous ones in our personal and civic discussions.

The difference between "cheap" and "powerful" words lies, more than anything else, in their sincerity. And verbal sincerity is directly related to the level of detailed knowledge the speaker or writer brings to the subject at hand.

Think for a moment of the difference between a talk delivered at a wedding or funeral by a clergyperson who actually knows the betrothed or the deceased and another given by someone who does not. The talk of the first is generally filled with humor, admiration and, given the often-harsh vicissitudes of life, genuine pathos. The talk of the second is, more often than not, a string of forced and empty platitudes.

Perhaps it is just me, but every time I see the COEXIST bumper sticker, my eyes are drawn to the Islamic Crescent used to represent the "C" and the Star of David used to represent the "X". Given the centrality of the Arab-Israeli conflict to current US foreign and military policy, I suspect that the prominence of these two symbols within the design is no accident.

If that is the case, what is the author of the bumper sticker--and by extension, the ten of thousands of people who sport it on their cars--trying to tell us?

My best guess is that the Arab-Israeli conflict is, above all, a problem of coexistence, which is to say, a problem rooted mostly in a lack of tolerance. It will thus be solved, they seem to suggest, when the each of the two parties involved demonstrates a more empathic understanding of the other's worldview.

In fact, we often hear a slightly different version of this same narrative in the media--and from there, at our neighborhood barbecues--when "commentators" who usually haven't bothered to read any rigorous historical account of what has gone on in Palestine over the last 100 years, say things like. "Those people have been at each other's throats for thousands of years. I wish that they could just sit down and talk 'reasonably' for once about their shared future."

Never mind the fact that they have not, in fact, been at each other's throats for thousands of years but rather for a relatively short period dating from central third of the 20th century to the present, there is the larger question of how much those that so publicly advocate its benefits really regard "coexistence" (with its implied call for tolerance above all) to be the best tonic for serious and/or recognizably intractable conflicts.

When the South African government assigned the great majority of its citizens to essentially act as servants to a greedy white minority, I don't recall people on the left talking about "coexistence". I don't recall anyone prattling on about how what was really needed in the Balkans in the 1990s was a greater dedication to mutual understanding. When three thousand people died on September 11th, 2001, I don't recall anyone, even the leftiest of the left, clamoring for "tolerance". (Indeed, in those dark days, it was hard to find many in the mainstream left who would settle for anything short of armed revenge!). To have responded to these cases with non-specific bromides about "understanding", "dialogue" or "coexistence" would have rightly been seen as rather grotesque.

Why? Because in each matter, people clearly perceived (either despite or because of the well-known distorting powers of the mainstream media) that they were witnesses to acts of injustice. And as every person professing faith in the Enlightenment values that gave birth to this country's judicial and social order knows (notwithstanding that disgraceful display of "liberal" bloodthirstiness after September 11th), the only enduring answer to breaches of civility such as these is the careful administration of justice.

And they also know, at least on some level, that the careful administration of justice only takes place when people are willing to engage in the precise and unsentimental documentation of wrong-doing.

But therein lies the problem.

At some point during the last thirty years, flatly and directly pointing out the criminal actions of powerful persons or cultural entities came to be seen as the ultimate sign of, as Glenn Greenwald likes to say, "unserious" behavior for the ambitious and supposedly idealistic people of the left.

"I know he's an a immoral jerk who earns money by stoking the misery of others, but you just can't come out and say that! It would be so rude." Or as the pastor of a large and extremely liberal Catholic parish (complete with a populous Gay Ministry and an active Peace and Justice chapter) told me in the Spring of 2003, "I am as against the war as you are, but I can't come out and say so because we have many parishioners with family members in the armed forces". Or as a number of friends have said to me (with slight textual variations) "Of course, Israel is out of control and is badly mistreating the Palestinians. But, you can't just go around accusing them of being the major cause of these problems. That would be irresponsible".

What binds all these statements together is the speaker's desire to appear progressive, or perhaps more precisely, to retain his or her cherished ideal of being on the right side of justice, without opening themselves up in any way to a fight with powerful and potentially vengeful interest groups within our culture.

And here is where the "COEXIST" bumper sticker and the many other types of "liberal" speech that mimic its basic semantic approach come in. With their carefully distanced, and above all, historically and factually non-specific "call to arms", they let the speaker feel good about his or her intentions without demanding that he or she engage in the "dirty" and "unseemly" work (at least according to the post-1980 liberal aesthetic) of assigning core moral responsibility to any party in the conflict that might have close ties to themselves, their party, their ethnic group, or their country.

While this may be a successful short-term coping technique for some individuals, its widespread usage among the population it has a truly corrosive effect on a culture over the long term.


Because it effectively decouples a citizen's "speech acts" from his or her instinctive sense of morality, and from there, his or her need to be accountable before the pressing problems of our time. And once this cord is snapped, words do, in effect, become quite "cheap". The evidence is all around us.

We see people who:

--Consider our imperial wars immoral but also say they "Support the Troops". One can tolerate, forgive and have pity for people involved in what you see as unprovoked industrial-scale killing. But what you can't do and be morally coherent is to say you "support" them.

--Tout Obama as "Certainly better than any Republican" in the absence of any real analysis of what he has done to improve the policies bequeathed to him by Bush.

--Say that that the US "supports democracy" in the absence of a factual review of whether this is really the case.

--Repeat the belief that we are "under threat from terrorists" when the details of these "threats" are seldom made public and when ourselves have, in fact, spent a decade intensely terrorizing others.

And a very long etcetera.

Words have the potential to serve as very powerful weapons our efforts to change the present circumstance...but only if we insist on rooting them in concrete historical details. True empathy, and from there, effective plans of future action, can only be forged when we really know what led us (or the people we purport to care about) to our present locations in space and time. High-sounding but context-free invocations to goodness have little real effect. Worse yet, they can impel us to believe we have a moral agency we may not, in fact, possess.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.