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The Philosophy of Bumper Stickers

Book cover for "If You Can Read This: The Philosophy of Bumper Stickers". Written by Jack Bowen who teaches Philosophy at the Menlo school in Atherton.
Courtesy of Random House, Inc.
Book cover for "If You Can Read This: The Philosophy of Bumper Stickers". Written by Jack Bowen who teaches Philosophy at the Menlo school in Atherton.
The Philosophy of Bumper Stickers
Bumper stickers are not a substitute for philosophy, but they can be a good place to start. We'll hear from the author of the new book IF YOU CAN READ THIS about the rational underpinnings of such pithy bumper proclamations as My Karma Ran Over Your Dogma and Kill Your Television.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. Every once in a while, if you sort through the nonsense, the inappropriate comments and whose child was an honor student at which school, you run across a bumper sticker that really makes you think. And thinking is just what a philosophy professor would like more of us to do. And so, one such professor has assembled a small book of thought-provoking bumper stickers to see if these small pithy sayings stand up to some rigorous rational thought. The book is called “If You Can Read This: The Philosophy of Bumper Stickers.” It's written by my guest Jack Bowen, who teaches philosophy at the Menlo School in Atherton. And, Jack, welcome to These Days.

JACK BOWEN (Author): Hi, Maureen. Thanks for having me.

CAVANAUGH: You’re very welcome. We invite our listeners to call in with their favorite piece of bumper sticker wisdom. The number’s 1-888-895-5727. Jack, Peanuts creator, the cartoonist Charles Schultz, once said there’s a difference between a philosophy and a bumper sticker but according to your book, there are also similarities. Tell us where the two meet.


BOWEN: Yeah, that’s a really good starting point, actually. I, in my mind, I sort of take that quote you just gave by our Peanuts creator and combine it with a quote that I like from Rick Shenkman, who’s a social commentarian who writes that if your thoughts can’t be portrayed on a bumper sticker, there’s very little chance they’ll ever be accepted. So I think there’s a really nice middle ground there where, clearly, if we take the – you know, the average bumper sticker being 8.1 words, which I took the time to average one afternoon, and we take these 8.1 words and combine it with this idea that you just gave from Charles Schultz that an entire philosophy cannot be contained in 8 to 10 words, we have a nice middle ground where the bumper sticker grabs our attention typically with some sort of nice rhetoric or sarcasm and then allows us to delve deeper into it.

CAVANAUGH: Right. Now the first bumper sticker you brought to your philosophy class is a famous one. It says, ‘we kill people to show people that killing people is wrong.’ It’s obviously an anti-death penalty slogan. How did your class react when you brought that in?

BOWEN: Oh, that was a really fun day as a teacher. I walked into class the day one of the death penalty segment and I wrote that bumper sticker on the board and cited it, you know, bumper sticker, Menlo Park, you know, July one.


BOWEN: And the class just sort of exploded. Two-thirds of the class saying, you know, yeah, yeah, yeah, see, but the death penalty’s wrong. And one-third saying, wait, that can’t be a defense of an anti-death penalty position. And the great thing for me was, is I could just kind of step back, let them discuss and, lo and behold, we’ve got 15, you know, adolescents doing philosophy which then gave me – provided sort of a catalyst for me to come in and talk about the deeper issues and use these terms that philosophers sometimes use that I sort of wish they wouldn’t but ‘reciprocal retributivism’ and these…



BOWEN: …philosophical ideas that they, themselves, were actually discussing on their own.

CAVANAUGH: Now you – basically that argument as proposed in this particular bumper sticker, ‘we kill people to show people that killing people is wrong,’ is basically found in your book not a consistent argument. It’s wrong.

BOWEN: I think it’s wrong. It doesn’t mean I think the position of anti-death penalty is wrong…

CAVANAUGH: Right, right.

BOWEN: …which is obviously an important distinction but, yeah, I mean, it would be similar and I suggest the imaginary bumper sticker, ‘we imprison people to show people that kidnapping is wrong.’ Right?


BOWEN: That imprisoning people doesn’t in any way endorse kidnapping and so, clearly, we need to do a little bit more work on sort of the theories of punishment and decide just what is it we’re hoping to get out of this system of punishment.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Jack Bowen about his book, “If You Can Read This: The Philosophy of Bumper Stickers.” And I’m wondering, Jack, do most bumper sticker slogans kind of fall flat when they’re held up to that kind of scrutiny?

BOWEN: Boy, yes and no. That’s a really good question. There’s a kernel of truth in every bumper sticker. If we want to stick with this one, certainly there is something we need to be aware of, that we say, well, wait a minute, you know, we hold life to be the most precious thing and yet we’re allowing our government to sometimes take it away from us? Like we need to do more work there. So there is a kernel of truth there but, yes, I guess in my mind I sort of did this – I didn’t want the book to be this massive, you know, decontructionist, look how wrong everyone else is and look how right philosophers are. And it turns out when I was done, I agreed with about 30 to 40% of the bumper sticker and disagreed with about 60. So there certainly is some good work being done there.

CAVANAUGH: Now one of the interesting things about your book is that you take, say, a bumper sticker like one that I think is very funny, ‘why do psychics have to ask for your name?’ and in your companion essay to that, you engage in a really rather complete analysis about the reasons for skepticism about mind reading. Guide us through the type of analysis that happens when you take these bumper sticker thoughts to their logical conclusion.

BOWEN: Yeah, well, that was a really fun one for me. I think, clearly, the answer to that rhetorical question is, you know, psychics have to ask you for your name because they don’t have psychic powers.


BOWEN: It’s the same reason they have to ask you, will that be cash or credit when they’re charging you $300 for half an hour reading. And when you really take a step back – and part of this is, it’s a little bit reminiscent of stoicism where we want to sort of maybe step away from our passional nature and wish that this person could tell us what to do in our relationships or in our job or what’s going to happen to us in the future and look at the facts, right. I mean, when you look at – when they’re – when you see the psychics are only really asking questions and then we’re providing the answers but because we want them to be telling us things we only see the hits and we ignore all of the misses and they’re – you know, they’re providing very general statements. You know, you’re a shy person but around the right people you’re really outgoing, all right? So they’ve called you both shy and outgoing and you get to say, yeah, well I am outgoing. But we’re all outgoing around our best friends. So it’s a chance to sort of step back and look a little bit more critically at what the claims really are being said, and if they hold up then we can accept them. And it turns out in the case of psychics and talking to dead people they don’t hold up.

CAVANAUGH: Right. Now there’s one, as you call it, a crafty bit of grammar that’s part of a lot of bumper stickers and it actually is the title of your book, if you can read this, usually you see it, ‘if you can read this you’re following too close,’ or some sort of ending to it. How does the if/then clause on these bumper stickers and really in thought work to make a point?

BOWEN: Well, yeah, it’s – You’re right. It does – The book certainly – obviously, it’s eponymous in this sense that it’s named after that sticker. It’s – I see it as an invitation and that’s really the best. I think that’s the best word I can use for what these bumper stickers in this book are doing is they’re – the ‘if then’ clause is inviting people, if you can read this… And, again, it’s a – I don’t know, it seems a little childish like, oh, if you can read this, well, who can’t? I mean, a one year old?


BOWEN: But if you can read this, then… You say, oh, then what? What can we discover? And so I see it more as an invitation. Clearly, it’s also – it’s sort of a rigorous, logical tool, the if/then statement that’s used in many logical proofs. And I try to shy away from that as much as possible because we can go buy a logic book to find out about that. But it’s really an elemental part of what we’re doing as just critical thinkers.

CAVANAUGH: How is if/then used in bumper stickers? I said, ‘if you can read this, you’re following too close.’ How else is it used?

BOWEN: Well, there’s this whole collection of good ones. We’ve got the ‘if you can read this then turn me over’ bumper sticker, which is actually placed upside down.


BOWEN: And I actually have a photo of a Jeep that had rolled over in an intersection and had that sticker on it so that it was – but it’s kind of amazing. And there’s a whole bunch of – There’s one in Braille, ‘if you can read this, you know, you’re too close.’ ‘If you can read this, I’m reloading.’ There’s a lot of people that are really into the gun thing out there on the road.


BOWEN: And so, yeah, it’s a pretty broad collection of stickers.

CAVANAUGH: Now what did you find out about people who have cars – have bumper stickers on their cars. You know, some people have bumper stickers all over them…


CAVANAUGH: …excuse me, all over their cars, some – other people would never put a bumper sticker on their wonderful car. What do we know about the profile of people who do drive around with bumper stickers?

BOWEN: Well, the study that I reference – Again, my book isn’t so much a psychology book. I kind of – I leave that to Malcolm Gladwell…


BOWEN: …the Malcolm Gladwells of the world. But there was a really interesting study done just last year at Colorado State and it shows that people who have bumper stickers on their car are considerably more likely to aggressively honk, right, not the honk to say hello or the warning honk but the aggressive honk, or to give some sort of aggressive gesture from their car, which I’ll leave to the listener’s imagination than were people without bumper stickers. And it turned out it didn’t matter what the message of the bumper sticker was, so both the ‘practice random acts of kindness’ sticker owners and the ‘my kid beat up your honor student’ were both more likely to sort of act out on the freeway, and I guess the clear correlation is if you’re putting bumper stickers on your car, you’re already sort of yelling out to people whether they want to hear it or not, here’s what I happen to think about what’s going on in the world.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Jack Bowen. He is the author of “If You Can Read This: The Philosophy of Bumper Stickers.” And we’re also inviting our listeners to call in. If you’re looking at a bumper sticker right now or if you’ve seen a good one lately, give us a call, 1-888-895-5727. I want to talk to you, Jack, about that really ubiquitous sticker, ‘my child was a, you know, honor student at…’ or, you know, ‘won this award at…’ What do you – how do you analyze that?

BOWEN: Yeah, it’s – well, it’s funny you ask. I feel like this is one of the most often-asked questions when I’m talking with friends about this book that I’ve been writing for the past two years…


BOWEN: …and they say, oh, yeah, do you just – do you hammer that really annoying ‘my child is an honor student’ sticker? And I, two – two years ago I was, I guess, subtly annoyed by these stickers but, I mean, big picture, I think one thing that philosophy does in sort of thinking creatively and critically and open-mindedly about the world is it instills a sense of empathy, and I have to say I’ve changed my tune a little bit with these stickers after thinking about it.


BOWEN: I mean, when it comes down to it, I mean, first of all the sticker itself provides a great opportunity to look into this notion of quality. And, you know, Robert Pirsig goes into this in that great novel, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” kind of saying, well, what is this thing equality? It’s what grades are based on. We don’t know what it is. And I looked at a couple of studies about teachers grading papers and giving vastly different grades to the same paper and it led me to this notion that when this fifth grader gets a sticker from his school for academic excellence, like what’s he supposed to do? Throw it away? Or put it on his binder and – So instead he goes home and gives it to his parents and his parents celebrate that for a month or, you know, they probably leave it on for longer than that.


BOWEN: And, you know, people celebrate these things differently. You know, some people put their awards and their plaques and their degrees all over their walls and some people hang art. And it’s just – that’s how they celebrate it. So I guess I’ve come at it from a different angle in my analysis.

CAVANAUGH: One of our listeners has told us that their favorite bumper sticker is ‘visualize world peas.’

BOWEN: Yeah, I find that a fascinating sticker. So what a fascinating one to have it be your go-to. And I do, as you know, I talk about this in the book in combination with visualize world peace…


BOWEN: …and it’s, you know, there are so many bumper stickers that sort of respond to each other. It’s very popular in the, you know, ‘guns don’t kill people, people do,’ ‘…bullets do,’ ‘…drivers with cell phones do.’ ‘Actually, no, guns do kill people.’

CAVANAUGH: Yes, right.

BOWEN: Right, there’s this whole like ongoing discussion of the Second Amendment on bumper stickers.


BOWEN: The ‘visualize world peas’ response is an interesting one because there’s nothing really terribly offensive about visualize world peace except maybe the concern is that we’re only being asked to sit and visualize it instead of actually doing something about it. So I think that’s just one of those and we have write that off to, hey, I’m a – I’m funny and witty and maybe they’re giving us some of the sort of physiological benefits of laughter but it is an image in the book, I guess fun to imagine people living life in peas, if we want to take the quote from the song.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take a call. Danielle is calling us from San Diego. Good morning, Danielle. Welcome to These Days.

DANIELLE (Caller, San Diego): Hi. Good morning.


DANIELLE: I saw a bumper sticker that I have used in my life many times and it’s been my favorite for probably, I don’t know, five years. And it says ‘I must hurry up and catch up with the others for I am their leader.’

CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Danielle, that’s great. And a thing – you have a number of bumper stickers like that, you know, ‘I’m unique just like everybody else.’

BOWEN: Yeah, there’s some great sort of, I guess, self defeating bumper stickers. The one that jumps out along with the one you just mentioned…


BOWEN: …is the ‘abolish bumper stickers’…


BOWEN: ...bumper sticker. Like, hey, wait a minute, that’s a… So it is, there’s some – it’s a really good – And there’s a teacher at our school who gives an assignment to write a one sentence essay, right, and in a sense it’s extremely challenging, right.


BOWEN: One sentence, I can’t say very much in one sentence but if you really sit down and spend some time with it, as these bumper stickers do, you find that language is this really plastic, fun, you know, thing that – tool that we can then really have a good time with if we spend the time and use it creatively.

CAVANAUGH: Do you have a favorite bumper sticker, Jack?

BOWEN: Boy, it’s, you know, if asked, as I have been, to choose my favorite child, I have – I guess I would – I come down to two but, God, it’s really difficult to do. The one, which I won’t talk about because if you’re reading the book, I’m sort of preaching to the converted, is one that my wife saw when she was out on the road, which was a really playful sticker to write about, ‘reading is sexy.’

CAVANAUGH: Oh, that’s a good one.

BOWEN: But the one that I think I really like on maybe a slightly deeper level is ‘if ignorance is bliss, then why aren’t more people happy?’

CAVANAUGH: That is – Yes, that’s a classic.

BOWEN: Yeah, it really gets at – it gets at what, you know, Plato was trying to do but, you know, sort of inviting us to come out of the cave into the blinding light of reality that even though if it’s going to be a little bit painful, when you get over that ignorance you’ll get the sort of deeper sense of bliss and maybe in the way that Aristotle talks about fluorishing so that, you know, ignorance is bliss in the, you know, happy, eating an ice cream cone sort of way but I think when we do the little bit of work that we can do then we get to a deeper sense of flourishing so I guess that that would be my go-to if…

CAVANAUGH: We have time for another phone call. Kathy is calling us from Hillcrest. Good morning, Kathy. Welcome to These Days.

KATHY (Caller, Hillcrest): Good morning.


KATHY: Hi. Can you hear me?

CAVANAUGH: Yes, we can.

BOWEN: Hi, Kathy.

KATHY: Hi. I was in Canada in 2005, driving from Toronto to Montreal and back again. And we were on the road for about two weeks and we didn’t see any bumper stickers.

CAVANAUGH: No bumper stickers in Canada. Did you know about that, Jack?

BOWEN: I do know that there are definitely places that favor them more than others. I live in Northern California so I see a lot in Berkeley and Santa Cruz, though I grew up in San Diego and am visiting San Diego this weekend. And I know – Actually Hillcrest strikes me as a place rich with bumper stickers.


BOWEN: But I think there are so many other venues for this kind of thought that Facebook now has a bumper sticker app that has over 23 million users so I think maybe people are directing those energies elsewhere.

CAVANAUGH: Exactly. With Facebook and Twitter, there’s no reason…

BOWEN: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: …to wear it on your car anymore.

BOWEN: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to thank you so much for speaking with us today, Jack.

BOWEN: Yeah, thanks for having me. It’s nice to, I guess, virtually be back in my hometown for 20 minutes.

CAVANAUGH: Well, you will be back here signing copies of your book, “If You Can Read This: The Philosophy of Bumper Stickers.” Jack Bowen will be at Bay Books in Coronado this Friday night at 6:30 and at Warwick’s on Monday night, March 29th at 7:30. Thanks once again, Jack.

BOWEN: Thanks for having me.

CAVANAUGH: And if you’d like to respond or tell us your bumper sticker or make any kind of comment at all, you can go online, You’ve been listening to These Days on KPBS.