Overview:

A well-written bumper sticker can serve as a great catalyst and starting point for framing some of life's richest topics.

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In my years researching and writing “If You Can Read This: The Philosophy of Bumper Stickers,” I discovered one thing to be true: bumper stickers have the potential to really rile people up. And it should be no surprise. These stickers essentially do what we’re encouraged to avoid at polite gatherings such as dinner parties and the like: scream out our position on the most heated, emotionally laden issues in the history of humanity. Worse, they leave essentially no recourse for discourse or conversation. 

It’s as though the sticker owner is there, stopped at the red light, and yells, “Abortion Is Murder” at drivers behind them, then plugs their ears and stomps their feet, asserting a sort of childlike victory in an unrequited debate. Even if the driver viewing the sticker has their own comeback—“My Body, My Choice”—it serves only to educate the driver behind them, and so the cycle continues.

So, we might be tempted to draw a similar conclusion to that of Peanuts cartoon creator, Charles Shultz, who once commented, “There’s a difference between a philosophy and a bumper sticker,” or even Hall of Fame rockers Green Day who, in their hit song, “Warning,” send a “public service announcement” to warn those who get their “philosophy from a bumper sticker.”

But, in response to this sentiment, I’d like to play a trump card in Mark Twain, who famously said, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” English teachers employ this often: “Make every word count!” they say, as my wife-the-editor frequently says to me. There’s no better example of this than bumper stickers. 

A good bumper sticker does some amazing work quickly: The author often crams 100s of pages of insight into one pithy phrase. And a good sticker does so with some sort of rhetoric or cleverness, as a way to engage the reader. A sticker, “The Death Penalty Is Bad” just isn’t very enticing. But, “Why Do We Kill People To Show People Killing People Is Wrong?” draws the reader in. They have to think about it for a moment. Sift through the logic and the rhetoric of the question. And then, in an ah-ha moment, the reader gets it: Oh yeah, the death penalty is inconsistent; worse, it’s hypocritical; no to the death penalty! Thank you, sticker owner.

The research and writing process of my book afforded me moments of procrastination, as many writers lament. Writing is difficult. As such, we often seek ways to avoid writing. As the famous author, Douglas Adams once quipped, “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” One procrastination project I entertained involved taking all 2,000-plus bumper sticker slogans I’d collected and averaging their word length. The result: 7.4 words.

What an amazing feat: To cram volumes of philosophy into 7.4 words.

What an amazing feat: To cram volumes of philosophy into 7.4 words. Our death penalty bumper sticker, above, in a sense, failed this part of the test. It took them 12 words. Another version of that sticker attempts to solve this by turning the rhetorical question into a statement, shaving off the “Why do” but still leaving the sticker at a robust 10 words. But this sticker essentially frames nearly 100 pages of Immanuel Kant’s “Metaphysics of Morals,” distilling his retributivist theory of punishment, in contrast to utilitarianism’s means for justifying punishment by a sovereign state.

See: many readers understandably glossed over that previous sentence. As you should have. Philosophers tend to be poor salespersons of otherwise outstanding ideas.

This is where bumper stickers provide real value. In just 7.4ish words, we have a starting point for philosophical discourse. As per Shultz (and Green Day), there is a difference between this bumper sticker and Kant’s philosophical tome. The sticker leaves out a great deal of nuance. But what it does do well is to invite readers into the discussion. Something Kant, et. al., fail to do well. To quote another pop philosopher, Dr. Seuss, “Sometimes the questions are complicated and answers are simple.”

All this being said, it’s now clear why the following bumper sticker made it into my Top 10 Favorites: “If It Doesn’t Fit On A Bumper Sticker”. Because if it doesn’t fit on a bumper sticker, then, maybe you’ve made it too complicated. Actually, the better bumper sticker would exactly fit the 7.4 average: “If It Doesn’t Fit On A Bumper Sti…” 

Of course, one could argue the opposite: If it doesn’t fit on a bumper sticker, then it’s probably because the issue’s deeper than something we can summarize in 7.4 words. This, really, is the downside of people who, “Get their philosophy from a bumper sticker.” Bumper stickers can serve as great starting points. But, unfortunately, many people stop there. They tackle abortion, the death penalty, war, religion, and who beat up whose honor student all in 8 words, and then move on, as though there’s no work left to be done.

This isn’t the case for all bumper stickers as with two other personal favorites, “What if the Hokey Pokey IS What It’s All About,” as well as, “Reading Is Sexy.” But for a majority of bumper stickers, there’s much work left to be done. In this case, the sticker owner needs to seek out their local philosopher and engage in some good, civil discourse. All the while, while on the roads, they can consider taking some other bumper sticker advice from our four-legged friends, “Wag more. Bark less.”

The author of 5 books, including Amazon Top-500, The Dream Weaver and, If You Can Read This, featured in the New York Times. Spoke at TEDxStanford in 2017 on the topic of awe. Graduated from Stanford...