Stick with me on this one, it’s a bit convoluted.
I drove aboard a ferry this week, en route from an island back to the mainland pier. In the early morning chill, there were not many vehicles making the run. But there was one vehicle that caught my attention, first in a humorous way and then in a curious way. Let me describe the back end of the van.
The van was an older model, and clearly had seen some better days; it’s not unusual to see vehicles of this vintage decorated with interesting bits of bumper-sticker wisdom to consider as we drive along. On the left side of the back end was this quote: “It’s very frustrating to see otherwise intelligent people demonstrating their ignorance.” (In other words, sometimes people who you think are pretty wise can surprise you with their stupidity, almost always when they do not happen to agree with you.) I read it out loud to my wife and we shared a good laugh over its embarrassing truth.
But the sticker on the other side of the van quickly muted the moment. The sticker there read: “If you can read this, thank a teacher. If you can read this in English, thank a U.S. Marine.” (In other words, be grateful that you speak the only real language of importance and that U.S. military prowess has secured it for you.)
It’s not that I suddenly became all serious and sensitive over a simple bumper-sticker; I’ve seen many that were far more offensive in content. But in reading the second one after the humor of the first, I was stuck by a sense of pathos, both in what was being said and how it dovetailed with the lighthearted humor right next to it. Did the driver recognize that by posting the second, he fit right into the description of the first? As one who has struggled to learn Spanish over recent years, in order to better understand and appreciate Nicaraguans with whom we work, I was struck by the jingoistic flavor of the message on the right. The suggestion seems to be that English is the superior form of expression, that those who speak it are somehow better than others and that our historic propensities for war- as embodied in the exploits of U.S. Marines- are what have secured this preferred form of expression. I didn’t intend to frown or shake my head, but I did.
Then, of course, the universality of the first sticker occurred to me and I recognized two potential truths from this rolling provocateur. First, the owner of the van had hilariously (if unintentionally) demonstrated the truth of the first sticker. The utter nonsense of English-speaking superiority fits the definition of ignorance like a glove.
But then, second, the owner of the van maybe, just maybe, pulled me unsuspecting into a trap. It may be that in creating such a juxtaposition of messages there on the back of the van, he/she masterfully subjected me to the uncomfortable truth of the first message: no one has a corner on the market for being right. There will never be a shortage of issues over which reasonable people will disagree, and we run the risk of demise when we assume a default posture that implies any alternative opinion contrary to my own is “ignorance.” Did I condemn myself by regarding the driver as ignorant on the basis of the message with which I disagreed?
Well, the fact is that I did not ask the driver about the intended message; it is perhaps most likely that there was never any intentional synchronizing of the messages at all, and that they simply presented two unrelated statements, one clever and one rather overtly nationalistic. I find myself hoping that such was not the case, that the driver really doesn’t feel the superiority of an English tongue. (I can’t help it: he’s way off base with the second message.) But if the presence of the two stickers was more than a chance marriage of the two statements, then the back of the van has some grist for deeper reflection, about truths and disagreements and our world views.
I may need to stop overthinking bumper-stickers….