Confusing Signs

I’ve been walking Sunny a lot lately. Now all of 50 pounds – four times her weight when she came into our lives three and a half months ago – she’s still every ounce a puppy. She leaps eagerly in the direction of every nearby person or dog, hoping to snuggle up to them all. When there are no such delightful diversions, she plays tug-of-war with her leash as we walk, sometimes nipping gently at my (happily, gloved) fingers.

Sunny’s ceaseless cavorting invariably draws smiles from passersby and on most outings once or twice drivers stop their cars, lower their windows and shout compliments or ask about her breed. I’ve told the Beloved Spouse that if reincarnation proves to be a thing, next time I come back I’m going to get a puppy when I’m in my early twenties; that way, every young lady the puppy and I come across will be happy to talk to me.

I see a fair number of Black Lives Matter signs in the predominantly white neighborhoods and the salt-and-pepper area Sunny and I walk through on most days, though none in the mostly black neighborhood we walk through once or twice a week. My inference is that most of the signs belong to white people who feel that by posting them they’re showing solidarity with African Americans.

I can’t help but read the signs differently.

One way to read them is as evidence of excitement on the part of the poster about something that he or she has just discovered. Apparently, he (or she, whatever) hadn’t known that black lives matter until just now and is so excited about this realization that he just has to share this great news with everybody.

I don’t know, though: wouldn’t he realize after a few moments’ thought that everybody else – especially his black neighbors – had known that all along? Wouldn’t that be a little like admitting that he was an idiot until five minutes ago?

So maybe he means the sign differently. Maybe what he means is that while he knew all along that black lives matter, he’s not at all sure that we understand it, so he feels it necessary to lecture us. If so, he thinks we’re a bunch of bigots. I’m not sure I like that guy.     

Nah; I doubt he means the sign in either of those ways – at least consciously. He’s not admitting that he just had a revelation, really a long time after all the other white people did, or intentionally calling the rest of us bigots. Most likely, he sees himself as publicly aligning himself with those who believe that black Americans are the victims of systemic, invidious discrimination.

But if that’s what he believes, rather than advertising that belief in the vaguest of ways, shouldn’t he be pointing to specific things that need to be changed – or working directly to change them? He’s not going to change the system by merely asserting that the system is rotten without telling us how it’s rotten and what the fix is. (Unless, of course, he thinks the problem is us, which brings me right back to the second of my alternative explanations). 

For example, he could make a fine case that our public schools fail poor children, black and white, and that they need to be radically reformed – and in that he would surely be right – but that’s really a long way from the message his sign conveys, so probably that’s not where he’s heading.

Or maybe what he really wants to say is that the police systematically discriminate against black people, and often kill them with impunity, so their departments should be defunded or otherwise radically reformed. If so, I wouldn’t want to see him debate Heather MacDonald on the story the actual statistics on police-caused fatalities tell – or tell poor communities that they’ll have to do without cops. Or, for that matter, tell his suburban neighbors that they should do without police protection for their homes and property. And again, if that’s what he means, why doesn’t his sign say it directly?

Same with the idea that maybe he supports reparations. Does he want to give more of his money than he already pays in taxes to somebody because the recipient is black? He can do that now! If, on the other hand, he wants all of us to pay reparations through increased taxes, what about the putative recipients who are already richer than a lot of the taxpayers who would be paying the bills? Or, if such reparations were to go only to the poor, what about poor whites or Hispanics? (Sorry, no special help for ‘poor white trash’? Seems rather harsh). His message touches not on such details; maybe he doesn’t want us to think about the moral complexities of the matter.  

Such thoughts leave me mystified as to what those who put up these signs have in mind. I am left where I began – seeing the signs as vague statements of solidarity with what the posters see as an actively oppressed group without specifying how they are oppressed, or possible solutions to the presumed problems. I’m pretty sure the signs help those who put them up feel better about themselves for having done so, though, so there’s that.

Even so, I am inescapably left with the feeling that those who put up these signs implicitly see me – a casual passerby – as part of a problem that they see clearly (but don’t define) about which I, fool that I am, must be reminded.

I just don’t share that particular view of our relative moral perceptiveness.

Neither does Sunny. She loves everybody, which is one of the reasons I love her.

M.H. Johnston

P.S. For a serious consideration of this topic, I recommend this Unspeakable Truths about Racial Inequality in America – Quillette essay by Glenn Loury.           

7 comments to Confusing Signs

  • AT  says:

    C’mon, man. You live in New England, the land of the self-righteous bumper sticker. You know why they put these signs up. “Most likely, he sees himself as publicly aligning himself with those who believe that black Americans are the victims of systemic, invidious discrimination.” Well, yes, probably. But mostly virtue signaling: the sign owner is letting the world know that he/she is not one of those *bad* white people. Maybe there’s a little bit of Havel’s greengrocer at work: the small shopkeeper living under communism who put a “Workers of the world, unite!” sign in his shop window “because these things must be done if one is to get along in life”. So, maybe a little bit of fear too: to avoid or avert trouble. A talisman of conformity, in the clammy hope that the mob will see it and move on to the next house. Didn’t work in Seattle. Won’t work in Connecticut.

    Not noble. Not admirable. And–as Glenn Loury has pointed out repeatedly–not useful in any way that really matters.

    Good for you and Sunny, getting out and enjoying the weather together. My cousin lived in NYC, on the Upper West Side. She had a tiny Yorkshire terrier that she would carry around during our excursions downtown, peeking out of a small duffel bag. Everywhere we went, young women would come up to us unbidden and melt. Best icebreaker I’ve ever seen.

    • M Johnston  says:

      Of course. I was going for gentle mockery.

  • Richard Schaps  says:

    Interesting that you found nothing worth writing about for the last five weeks.. . Good that you and Sunny walk in those salt-and-pepper and mostly black neighborhoods they seem to inspire you to share these topical thoughts.

  • Filip Gieszczykiewicz  says:
    • Filip Gieszczykiewicz  says:

      I must have click post twice, so it gave me a warning and appended neither. Let me try again.

      Or it could be just Virtue Signaling (fair and balanced video on topic is https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RqSanyGuqGA) where those on the left signal their group identity. Those signs weren’t meant for you but other lefties (their peers).

      With most media one-sided and free speech for the most part impeded (at least suppressed), they (the lefties) also know that you’re not going to be able to contradict their sign.

      I like one lecture from Jordan Peterson where he explains liberals vs conservatives and where free speech fits in: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Ho5VZp_ps4. A deeper & more thorough version is: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8E6W9qJhtu8. I recommend latter highly.

  • DP  says:

    This was a great post and comments with great links. There are a lot of reasons people might put up a sign. One is that they may be fundamentally emotional and not analytical and see it as showing sympathy. Signs and flags are emotional signallers and are often, but not exclusively, used by demagogues and tricksters to appeal to emotion when the argument they support won’t stand up to scrutiny. I personally think that BLM falls in this category. But I don’t think that all the posters of signs mean anything objectionable. Sloppy, maybe. I grew up in (conservative) Illinois and the confederate flag was anathema, yet somehow it became a symbol for uncareful people of solidarity and resistance to change. How do we judge these people? If we have time, maybe on a case by case basis. But that flag and these signs show very clearly the risks from emotion untethered by facts. This is what the media means when it speaks of populism, but that’s actually not a correct word for it and their use of this phrase is a verbal form of the very same phenomenon as the flags/signs: denigrate the opponent by stirring up emotion or fear.

    New England has an old tradition of moral crusaders purifying their societies. I had thought we had moved way beyond this, but people don’t change. It seems that there is no limit to the number of people expressing deeply-held opinions on matters where they have no personal knowledge, but where they have been stirred up on social media (the new public square). I watched a documentary on Britney Spears last night, and there were a lot of well-meaning people expressing forceful opinions on her mental health and lifestyle, a chimera if there ever were one. Another example: I live in London now and was called by the NHS to be vaccinated, via a text with a link to their website. There is a local neighbourhood app called Nextdoor that local people use to chat about local things and there was a big conversation this week because someone innocently asked if the text he received (link with same address as mine) was spam/phishing. Nearly everyone told him it was dangerous to open the link and that he must report it to the police. Based on fear and zero knowledge and without considering the impact if they were wrong.

    It is all a sobering argument in favour of the Bill of Rights and limited government powers, I think.

  • Doug V  says:

    When those signs started showing up here in Maine – in the tonier towns mostly – before the election, I wondered how long after the election they would stay up. My thought when I passed a house with the BLM sign was “when can they ever take that down? At some point do Black Lives no longer matter?” Of course the answer was when Biden *won*

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