As we drove down a side road in backwoods southern Indiana, I saw a billboard that showed a baby swaddled in an American flag. The headline read “CHOOSE LIFE!” in gloriously bold Arial.
I couldn’t help but laugh. Not to trivialize the issue of abortion, but—seriously—who was this billboard aimed at? Did they really think that some pregnant mother would be driving to an abortion clinic, see the sign, and then change her mind? As if the only thing relevant to her decision was the billboards on the way? If so, she must have also made a couple of stops at McDonald’s.
Was this message really one that needed to be reiterated? Is this new information for anyone in the community? If people here don’t agree with the sign’s message, they must be keenly aware as members of the minority. If people do agree, what does this sign offer? Solidarity? Encouragement?
This is where we are. The reduction of a decades-long debate with life-changing ramifications to a billboard. Or a bumper sticker. Or a sound bite.
To be clear, I’m not writing in response to the actual message of the billboard. I am simply responding to the way that message was presented. To approach a topic as complex as abortion in a blog post like this could be as bad as a billboard.
Now, I recognize that political discourse has to be simplified for progress to occur. You can’t always present things in full. To tell the whole story requires time and patience—two things people are short on.
I also understand the importance of rallying cries—the value of putting common words at the forefront of movement. The galvanizing power that the right phrase can hold.
But we’re past simplification, past rallying. We’re into a new realm.
These phrases, headlines, and memes have been dissociated from the larger, deeper concepts they represent. They’ve become emblems of our anger, symbols of our unwillingness to truly engage with these issues.
This is not a generational thing. I don’t believe this is any less true today than it was in the past. What has changed is the information we have access to.
The fact that we boil these issues down to meaningless little bits when we have more ability to actually engage with these issues than any time in history—that is what’s unforgivable.
I recently had dinner with a friend in journalism. He lamented the fact that in order to appear balanced, his publication was feeling pressure to report on stories that they knew to be insubstantial. To keep their credibility, they had to pretend like there was some significance where there wasn’t. And their very reporting of those stories lent those non-stories some significance.
To say this another way, journalists must now balance trying to tell the truth with trying not to appear partisan. There’s something wrong here.
Because partisanship in general is perhaps the greatest evidence of billboard thinking. Instead of having to actually learn the stances of candidates and deal with the ambiguity of not feeling very sure about who we should support, we’re quite happy to pick red or blue.
I say this all like I’m somehow above it. Like I actually read up on the drain commissioners for Grand Rapids before I voted for one. But I’m just as susceptible.
I understand that we don’t all have the time or energy to truly be informed. That is a privilege.
But it’s crap like this—like a “CHOOSE LIFE!” billboard, a “Make America Hate Again” yard sign, or a “Shoulda Been Bernie” bumper sticker—that will ruin us. These statements aren’t part of a conversation, they are part of a shouting match where everyone feels better about themselves and worse about others. These things are more complicated than little quips. We need to swing the pendulum of depth and simplicity back toward depth.
It’s easy to decide where you fall on abortion if you’re picking between billboards. It’s easy to say that the impending doom of climate change is a hoax if you’re just choosing which of two sound bites you like better. It’s much harder to really listen, learn, and think.
I don’t want to convince that person in Indiana that they should put up a billboard with a complete essay presenting their views. All I’m asking is that each of us try to avoid reducing these issues to a little clipping. Reduction happens naturally. But anyone with the time to read this post has the time to become informed enough that you don’t think in terms of billboards and bumper stickers.
Let’s be better.
Studied psychology and writing, works at a design firm. Film junkie, amateur photographer. (’16)