Guest column: June Sochen ... Bumper stickers

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Bumper stickers are to an older generation what Facebook is to kids today.

This unlikely comparison struck me recently as I walked down an aisle in the parking lot of the grocery store. Many cars advertised, on their bumpers, their political party affiliation, their views on social issues, and their general likes and dislikes. Pictures of their favorite pet could be seen next to an “end this or that” sticker.

I wonder whether any researcher has ever studied the relationship between bumper stickers and voting behavior. It would be interesting to see whether our common-sense assumptions were accurate.

The younger generation’s devotion to Facebook seems like a similar phenomenon. Users share their preferences, their prejudices, and their hopes with anybody and everybody who signs on to their page. Anyone who “friends” them, however remotely connected to them they are, reads all about the befriended individual. The need to publicly air feelings and thoughts with as many people as possible is very much like what car owners do with their bumper stickers. So this need to make public and very visible what you think and feel about absolutely everything is a shared generational trait. It is not unique to the older generations or the younger ones.

What does this behavior say about Americans? Not all Americans certainly but those who have bumper stickers and Facebook accounts. Are there other ways that people advertise their thoughts freely? Do the participants think that their opinions will win friends and influence people? Do they believe that only those who share their views will read their postings on Facebook and look at their bumper stickers? Are they trying to convert nonbelievers to their particular cause?

The separation between private and public is constantly blurred in contemporary life. What used to be private thoughts and feelings are now publicly and proudly declared. Some of us grew up believing that religion and politics were topics not to be discussed with strangers or with new acquaintances. They were too explosive and could end a friendship before it began. Nowadays that concern seems to be absent.

Professor Sherry Turkle of MIT, who studies the connections between technology and human behavior, recently wrote in The New York Times of the need of many members of the millennial generation to take photos, including pictures of themselves, and then share them with many people. She noted that the picture takers didn’t seem to feel authentic unless they take a picture. Even before they knew what exactly they thought or felt, they used their camera phone to record someone or something.

The larger significance of this behavior is not clear. Turkle hoped that young users of camera phones, texters and addicts of other technological gadgets are beginning to realize that they need “times out” from these obsessions so they can smell the roses and look beyond their hand-held device.

While many pundits lament the polarization in the country, this collapsing of the private and the public, especially combined with an indiscriminate urge to share with everyone and anyone, seems to belie that tendency. Perhaps both trends are operating simultaneously: the airwaves, for example, are probably more separated by points of view than ever before. You can choose your news outlets according to your preconceived opinions and never have to hear contrary positions. In this sense, the private is shared only in a public space that agrees with your private opinions, except in the parking lots.

Having opinions on many different subjects has become de rigeur. Generally, the opinions are those shared with people who subscribe to the same label as you do. The unspoken assumption is that if you agree with me on matter X, then it naturally follows that you agree with me on Y and Z as well. In this sense, my private world view is shared by those who read the same newspapers, watch the same TV programs, and attend the same church (or a church similar to mine).

But while we live in environments that confirm our views, through bumper stickers and camera phones, we expand our universe and allow anyone and everyone to know of our thoughts, values, and feelings.

Perhaps this is all a sign of the vitality of a democratic society. We are equal opportunity advocates and/or offenders, depending upon your point of view.

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