Wishful Thinking

COEXIST’s Bonehead Bumper-Sticker Politics

America’s simplistic adoption of the COEXIST bumper sticker signals a dangerous inability to understand the roots of religious conflict.

B Christopher/Alamy

You’ve seen them before, in Trader Joe’s parking lots and on Eastern Seaboard freeways, in the quiet streets of Asheville and Berkeley, on the bumpers of a fleet of VWs and Volvos. White letters, blue background, imperative mood: COEXIST. After campaign stickers, NRA decals, cartoon families, and those blatant “26.2” ovals, Coexist bumper stickers may be the most popular way for Americans to broadcast their worldviews in one word or less, while driving.

Meanwhile, ISIS is marauding across the Middle East. China is squeezing Tibet in an anaconda grip of cultural homogenization. Buddhists are causing violence in Sri Lanka, far-right Islamophobic parties are on the rise in Scandinavia, and Muslims and Christians are slaughtering each other in the Central African Republic.

All of this despite earnest, $2.50 bumper sticker pleas by tens of thousands of Americans asking these people to just get along.

But the Coexist bumper sticker mentality, shockingly, isn’t an antidote at all. It’s not even a harmless or naïve. It’s a symptom of a much larger phenomenon, one that makes it hard for Americans to talk seriously about religious conflict and history.

That phenomenon is not limited to peaceniks with spiritual aspirations. It’s just as common among hardline atheists as it is in squishy interfaith circles. It is, essentially, the insistence on perceiving religious conflict as the clash of big, abstract beliefs, which people can choose to set aside.

In the mindset of the Coexist camp, those abstract beliefs have become twisted things, wrapped up with hate. If people could only renounce their hateful ideas, they could learn to love one another. “Why,” the implicit question here goes, “can’t we all just get along?”

In the view of certain atheists, those damaging beliefs have seized people’s minds. As I’ve written before, there’s a tendency among some atheists to think of religion as a kind of virus, or a dangerous philosophical infection—in other words, as an idea that hijacks minds. In this perspective, the question of religious violence is something like “Why can’t people free their minds from religion, and learn to get along?”

The problem, of course, is that politicized ideas—religious and otherwise—are entangled with material problems. The conditions of history, colonialism, poverty, and geography have left people with plenty of reasons to find it difficult to coexist. None of those reasons, at their core, have much to do with what is or is not written in a religious text, or whether a Jewish star can be made to look pretty next to a Muslim crescent on a bumper sticker.

Consider Israelis and Palestinians. You can ask, sure, why they can’t just be less stubborn and set aside their differences. (I’m Jewish and write regularly about religion, and intelligent people ask me some form of that question—coded or not—with surprising regularity). To actually engage with the problem, though, requires you to ask slightly harder questions, like “What do we do about the fact that the major Muslim site in Jerusalem is built on top of the major Jewish site?” or “How can so many people, with so much history, share so little space and so little water?”

The problem, in short, isn’t just in the realm of ideas. It’s tangible.

Strangely, the Coexist sticker itself illustrates this whole point rather nicely. Piotr Mlodozeniec, a Polish graphic designer, came up with the image in 2001, for a traveling exhibit run by the Museum on the Seam. The museum is a private institution in Jerusalem that describes itself as a “socio-political contemporary art museum.” In its original form, the design only incorporated three symbols—a Muslim crescent for the “C”, a Jewish Star of David for the “X”, and the Christian cross for the “T”.

By the mid-2000s, the sign had been adapted by Indiana business owners, used by Bono during a tour, and become the subject of legal battles. The irony is apparent. You would think that they’d have learned to coexist, right?

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But there was money on the line, which tends to complicate things. In both trademark law and in religious conflict, the root problem is that some people’s desires conflict with other people’s desires. Occasionally, some people’s desperate needs conflict with other people’s desperate needs. Telling them to coexist doesn’t address that conflict. Telling them to be less religious or superstitious doesn’t address it, either.

Both strategies just let us exempt ourselves from any actual engagement with what might be happening—or, as Karen Armstrong has recently argued, any serious consideration of the West’s role in creating conditions for religious violence.

Coexistence is a noble goal. Negotiation, material support, personal connections, and empathetic engagement probably can address some of these issues (although whether Americans are generally the best source for those things in is up for debate). And I should note that some fraction of Coexist bumper stickers generate proceeds for the Coexist Campaign, a nonprofit that seems to do some worthy work. The campaign’s website is written strictly in NGO jargon, a language in which I’m not fluent. But, as far as I can discern, they do focused, pragmatic work.

Still, just judging by the broader Coexist bumper sticker vibe, it’s clear that a significant portion of America can pretend that world peace is all about lining up our various symbols in a pretty way, and learning to get along.

That illusion is a luxury. And that luxury may be a quirk of America, or at least white America. Over the years, this country has offered many of its immigrant groups a remarkable opportunity for reinvention. With ample real estate and social reshuffling, it’s possible to set aside a lot of old conflicts. It’s possible to feel as if history isn’t quite so binding. It’s possible, in this vast, comfortable new world, to imagine that conflict is just about ideas, not about the tragic collisions that seem inevitable in social life.

Of course, even in the U.S.A. we find ways of nurturing and displaying cultural discord—including, perhaps, through symbols of peace.

In one memorable study, a group of social psychologists at Colorado State University studied the relationship between bumper stickers and self-reported indicators of road rage. They found that having bumper stickers was correlated with aggressive driving. In their analysis, bumper stickers are “territory markers” on a vehicle.

In other words, Coexist stickers may imply a desire for global love. But the main message they send is one of membership in a certain cultural group. It’s an odd kind of paradox: even a call for universality, once branded, becomes a marker for social particularity. After all, there is only one sure-fire message that I can send by putting a Coexist sticker on the back of my car. Namely, that I am the type of person who puts a Coexist bumper sticker on my car.