Walter Goettlich is a doctoral student in sociology at the University of Kansas. For his thesis, he drove over 10,000 miles on American highways and byways gathering bumper sticker data, conducting interviews with bumper sticker owners and onlookers, while reflecting on his own reactions to all that he encountered on this journey. Goettlich presented his findings August 12 at the 112th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association in Montreal. The theme of this year’s ASA conference is "Culture, Inequalities, and Social Inclusion Across the Globe."
In an open letter before the conference, Michèle Lamont, Professor of Sociology & African and African American Studies at Harvard University and Chair of the ASA 2017 Program Committee described the goal of this year’s conference. Lamont wrote: “The 112th Annual Meeting of the ASA (Aug. 12-15, 2017) will make its central goal the improvement of our understanding of the nexus of culture, inequalities, and group boundaries in order to promote greater social inclusion and resilience, collective well-being, and solidarity in the United States and globally.” Adding, “Because sociologists are uniquely equipped to study inequalities in all their dimensions, it is high time to focus on the politics of social recognition and their interaction with and impact on the distribution of social and material resources, including how they are mediated by and/or manifest themselves in education, labor, immigration, consumption, law, social movements, health, science, the family, the economy, and beyond.”
Bumper stickers may seem like a pithy or glib angle to tackle such a complex and multifaceted agenda. However, bumper stickers can be poignant. For example, in light of the atrocity that occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia this weekend a simple bumper sticker phrase ("Hate Has No Home Here") instantly became a touchstone for me and others I know. On Aug. 13, 2017, the Associated Press reported:
"The chaos [in Charlottesville] erupted around what is believed to be the largest group of white nationalists to come together in a decade - including neo-Nazis, skinheads, members of the Ku Klux Klan - who descended on the city to "take America back" by rallying against plans to remove a Confederate statue. Hundreds came to protest against the racism. Peaceful protesters were marching downtown, carrying signs that read "black lives matter" and "love."
A silver Dodge Challenger suddenly came barreling through "a sea of people" and smashed into another car, said Matt Korbon, a 22-year-old University of Virginia student. The impact hurled people into the air and blew off their shoes. A 32-year-old woman was killed as she crossed the street.”
The hate-fueled rally that took place in Charlottesville this weekend has left me speechless. It’s impossible to unpack all of the ingredients baked into this historic civil rights event in a single blog post. Nor am I someone academically equipped to tackle such a daunting task. That said, last night when I was driving home from the grocery store around sunset, I pulled up behind a beat-up old Prius covered in bumper stickers that summed up messages of 'social inclusion across the globe.’ There were classic bumper stickers such as the Human Rights Campaign equality symbol, “COEXIST,” “Think Globally, Act Locally,” “Whirled Peas” and countless others.
Without a doubt, the bumper sticker that seemed most timely while waiting behind this random car at a red light was HATE HAS NO HOME HERE that included a heart symbol embedded with an American flag. This simple five-word sentiment adhered to the bumper of someone’s Toyota summarized just about everything I would want to say to my 9-year-old daughter as a coping strategy and way to move forward from the Charlottesville bloodshed and horrific loss of life.
On his Wordpress page, Goettlich describes his thesis, “Interstate Interstitial: Bumper Stickers and Spaces of Social Encounter on and Beyond American Superhighways," and research question: “Does the moment of one car passing another on the highway constitute a social encounter between two drivers, otherwise ensconced in their cars, mobile subjectivities unknown and apparently unknowable to one another? If so, what are some of the possibilities and limitations of such an encounter?”
Goettlich also described his bumper sticker research in an embargoed press release prior to the disturbing events that took place in Charlottesville. In this statement, he said: "Certainly, not everyone who reads a given sticker will attempt to make sense of it, and many will not even take notice in the first place. But for those who do, the practice of reading such inscriptions is not a trivial matter. Bumper stickers open up the possibility to try to imagine who it is that would have such a message on their car. They can make you feel a certain way. Or you can see something and say, 'Oh, that's one of those people,' and other times just be flummoxed. It's a form of social encounter. I think it's important to pay attention to this, especially as many political pundits and social critics lament declining public involvement. In these kinds of spaces, especially highways, malls and, airports, how do we maintain social connections? And what are the limitations of these connections, particularly if we already have somebody pegged or labeled as something?"
Bumper stickers remain an unspoken form of social interaction that takes place silently between car owners and strangers in parking lots, country roads, city streets, and interstates across the United States. Bumper stickers offer a unique opportunity for people from all walks of life to share their views in a public social sphere. Hopefully, the tragic events that have unfolded in Charlottesville over the past few days will result in more public displays of tolerance, love, and compassion.