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Even a “No Sign” Sign is a sign, however ironic it may be.

Joe Hoover, a Jesuit playwright, actor, editor and author writes a provocative piece in Image Journal titled, Spiritual Exercises in Jayville – a rambling essay that manages to touch nerves and speak softly to our cultural condition. Using the fictional anywhere USA town of Jayville, Hoover imagines what it means to be spiritual in tumultuous times.

Hoover alludes to an observation Charles Taylor made back in the 90’s:

Our age makes higher demands for solidarity and benevolence on people today than ever before… Never before have people been asked to stretch out so far, so consistently, so systematically, so as a matter of course, to the stranger outside the gates.

However, Taylor goes on to observe that “this kind of philanthropy may be capricious, subject to the whims of trends and what makes people feel good in the moment.”

Enter: the age of lawn signs and hashtags

With apologies to those who use lawn signs and hashtags, Joe Hoover writes,

Signs do not always make for actions. Anyone can hang a sign and claim to be the kind of person the sign says they are…

I confess it is daunting to have a robust and nuanced discussion with a person who spouts ideas in the confines of hashtags, slogans, or aphorisms, as if these are all one needs to know about a position. Hashtags and slogans are good for lawn signs and marches, but those who carry them need more substance.

As Noreen Masud put it:

There is nothing so deep as the gleaming surface of the aphorism.

Masud suggest that aphorisms (as expressed in lawn signs and hashtags for example), are not invitation to conversation, they are the expression of “losing faith in dialogue”. According to Masud, they are indifferent to their audience, as they don’t expect to change minds. Hashtags and aphorisms “finds relief in the act of expression itself”.

“The polished boundaries of aphorism signal that dialogue is unwelcome; no reply is necessary.

The brevity of aphorisms, then – refusing both explanation and dialogue – can either be a power move or in fact a lack-of-power move: a way of expressing oneself safely by remaining unheard. But what are the ethics of this mode of unhearable speech? Is aphorism a powerful venue for minoritarian speech – or a way of supporting the status quo, by refusing dialogic confrontation? Perhaps both. Aphorism makes explicit an urgent contemporary problem: that we live within political and plutocratic structures that are unthreatened even by the revelation of new information or insights. If I can’t change your mind, signals the aphorism, at least I can protect myself, and express myself, with hard rhetorical boundaries.”

Is it ironic, or is it paradox: the very lawn signs and hashtags that mark the monologic landscape also refuses both explanation and dialogue? If Masud is too harsh on aphorisms, Hoover is too blunt in his evaluation of the “amateur love” that motivates activism.

Posing at enacting the works of human goodness

Hoover observes that committed people may march and agitate for great causes with no mention of religion at all. But however impressive these displays of passion and anger may be, they are bound to fail, Hoover says:

You are amateurs at love, you think, posing at enacting the works of human goodness.

If non-religious activism and… benevolence are not grounded in something more eternal than a [sticker or a sign], will that activism eventually become something less gentle?

The Difference between a Drain and Conduit

This was what I was getting at in the above noted article I posted back in June 2020 observing that activism can come out of a passionate burst that drains you of life rather than being a conduit of grace, as Hoover states: 

If God is not the source of the good that we do, then who is to keep that goodness from mutating into whatever the most powerful and persuasive want it to be?

Says Flannery O’Connor:

When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror.

I suspect every revolution started off “good”, or wanting to do good… but eventually they end up as Russia, China, or the United States, where tenderness detached from the source of tenderness turns into terror. There is always a danger that beautiful intentions can be colonized into onerous dogmas.

Performative vs Substantive Allyship

Unfortunately so much of modern social media activism (sic) is performative like last year’s #BlackoutTuesday (June 2, 2020). Pascale Diverlus, organizer with BLM Toronto, called this a hollow social media trend, and writes:

This method of “allyship” begs the question: what does this actually solve? Often, it absolves non-Black people from taking action against  systemic inequalities and addressing how they benefit from anti-Blackness. Instead, they wear badges of “wokeness” to present an image to their audiences.

It’s been [twelve] months since #BlackoutTuesday, and in the aftermath of the summer of protest, it’s time to take stock of who has stood by their pledges and committed to real change and who just showcased performative allyship.

From article originally published February 9, 2021

There are Signs and then there are Signs

Modern expressions of revolution might be found in lawns signs promoting everything from supporting your favourite radio station to Black Lives Matter (as they do). Hoover writes about people on the American side of the Mexican border who post welcome signs for illegal immigrants:

“If nothing else [they are] acting as if they believe it. As if they genuinely want to throw their arms around anyone crossing the line into the county. If you put your mission statement on your front lawn, you’ve got some “eustress,” some healthy pressure to live it out. The words in the yard, the molecules in the paint can congeal with other molecules in a fair-minded chamber of the heart. Put out the sign and create the reality.

In a way, the division between the “secular” and the “non-secular” carries little meaning in American society today. The divisions that have cachet, that really speak to the way we operate, are between “wealth and power used to crush people” and “wealth and power used to liberate.” “Rage-filled ideologues” and “not.” “Sowers of fear” and “sowers of mercy.” Those who welcome the stranger and those who reject him, and viciously.

Indeed the signs we really want are the actions that are consistent and integrated with the whole. Indeed this can only happen as we are being made whole ourselves, admitting we are amateurs at love, but connected to the source of wholeness – living as a channel of His tenderness. This is more enigma than dogma.

What Signs are you Showing?