A bumper sticker is making the rounds amongst the Starbucks and Whole Foods crowd whose graphic depicts several religious-ish symbols cobbled together to form the word “coexist”. The intended idea here, one supposes, is that we should all have and demonstrate tolerance of others and “coexist” with all the people of the world. People should not be judged on the basis of the ideas they hold, irrespective of whether we agree with those ideas or not.
As with most bumper stickers, the initial concept is one that, on it’s surface, is entirely plausible. Until, that is, one gives the idea more than casual thought. But the burden of being a rational person requires more than casual, instinctive reactions to glib statements. So how could the idea of “coexistence” be glib?”
Consider, by way of explanation, the line up of ideologies that do not make the cut of that bumper sticker’s social club with whom we are instructed to coexist. There are many examples, but let’s focus on one. Would the foggy, feel-good person proudly displaying their “coexist” bumper sticker suggest that the swastika be included in the array of philosphies to be mutually respected? Should a card-carrying, Master Race, eugenicist, white supremacist Nazis be “tolerated”? Is “The Final Solution” just another respectable notion competing in the arena of ideas? One expects (one hopes) not. But why not? Isn’t the message of the bumper sticker that we should coexist with all people, even those whose philosophies we reject? So the bumper sticker’s sentiment is not particularly helpful after all.
And so we arrive at the beginning point of the thoughtful, rational person, which, as it happens, is the outer boundary of the vacuous, emotional person. Here we discover that the real question isn’t whether or not we should coexist, but rather what are the boundaries of civil society into which fall those with whom we are willing to coexist, and outside of which those with whom we cannot. As civilized people, we must admit that there are indeed ideas whose contents are so abhorrent that they are incompatible with civil society. And so, it is not at all helpful to spout vague notions of “tolerance” and “coexistence” and “diversity” without first doing the yeoman’s work of defining the parameters of civil society. Merely stating “coexist” is nice, but it leaves all the hard work yet to be done. Any moral person who thinks engages in discrimination. And any person in possession of good judgment will not coexist with any person, regardless of the ideas they hold. Just ask the survivors of Auschwitz.
Spouting ill-considered slogans and pasting feel-good stickers to one’s Prius might make the less thoughtful amongst us feel good about themselves. But as a prescription for defining how we as rational creature will order our society and define our personal ethics, “coexist” is useless. Its display on a bumper tell us more about the person doing it than about the content of the slogan.
So the next time you see that bumper sticker, one hopes you will see the statement (and the driver) for the intellectually vapid things that they are.