Hold Onto Your Butts: on Bumper-Sticker Beliefs

by jdavidcharles

Today I got stuck behind a car driving through Huntington Beach. On the back was a bumper sticker which read, “Hold onto your butts: keep our beaches and streets clean” featuring a picture of a cigarette butt. Nothing special. The irony, however, was that the driver was in fact smoking a cigarette and proceeded to throw the butt out the window. You know. Onto the street. At the beach.

This stresses to me something fundamental about belief. That is, belief is external, caught between and around and in front of us. It is out there in the world—we are in it, not autonomous possessors of it. This is not meant to completely undermine agency, just to say that oftentimes our so-called personal beliefs and convictions, say the soiling of streets with cigarette butts, goes against, not just our actions (i.e. hypocrisy), but active, external beliefs. This person (assuming the car was hirs and blah blah) had contradictory beliefs, both external convictions, one, that beaches and streets should be clean, and another, that s/he would like to smoke wherever s/he felt like. A lot of people’s reaction to global warming takes on this same contradictory-belief/disavowal quality (“Oh, of course I know global warming is really happening and terrible, but just one [insert environmental abuse here] isn’t going to break the camel’s back…”).

Basically, I’m trying to say that belief is caught up all around us. This includes us of course, like I said, I’m not trying to undermine agency. Who knows. Maybe a lot of good came from that bumper sticker. But nonetheless there was a pronouncement of a so-called “inner” belief (although of course this is wrapped up in external ideologies and mythologies about Nature, a certain health ideal, smoker shaming, etc etc) which, given its internality is presumed to be the person’s “authentic” self, counteracted by an “external” belief (“well, fuck it, I want a cigarette”), which is either viewed as a deeper self (“they’re a hypocrite!”) or  ideological (“look at how the media/corporations/et al have sapped away their agency!!! Aren’t we super great to in no way be influenced by ideology like those heathenz lolz!!1!”). Neither of these options fully satisfies me though.

I think of belief as an aggregate that, although including agents, is also external to myself. If you haven’t read Andy Clark and David Chambers’ fabulous essay on the extended mind, you should. In it, they argue to show the spreading of epistemic credit—that is that the mind is active externally in the objects it thinks “through.” So, for example, when writing a poem, myself, the pencil, and the pad all form an aggregate. I think “through” these things. Likewise with a laptop or even in regards to memory (the Otto and Inga example in the essay).

This is why I am so unsatisfied with most of the responses to the London riots. Either, the poor are demonized and blamed, the “they have revealed their true selves” rhetoric, or, on the opposing side, the rich and systemic forms of ideological and class oppression are to blame. Or, as Philip Blond seems to think, a bizarre form of both (he seems to think ideology is to blame, the destruction of “the individual” and blah blah, but yet somehow he wants to hold “individuals” wholly responsible… or am I reading this wrong?). None of these satisfy me wholly. People are caught up in beliefs, in systems, in ideologies. A person never fully bears the brunt of the belief in its entirety as an agent nor is the belief ever fully outside of the person. The agent is outside of the reach, withdrawn from the belief in some ways (like the smoking in the car with the bumper sticker, not wholly captivated by the belief, or rather, captivated in counteractive ways) and likewise the belief is outside the reach of the individual, they do not realize it in its entirety. No person involved in the London riots bears neither “the criminal” (a la demonization) nor “the oppressed poor” (a la ideological approach—which, for clarification, I do think is much less bigoted and far more insightful than the demonization approach) stereotype fully nor can anyone person be held fully responsible for the systemic beliefs involved therein (whether or not there is legal responsibility or what-have-you is not my concern here).

This is why I’ve decided to stop attending the church I was previously going to. I fully support equality for the LGBTQ community. It is also, unfortunately, hard to find the kind of church I would like to attend that doesn’t go directly against (in terms of verbal and/or financial support) LGBTQ issues and policy. I was attending such a church, and, well, I felt that I was within a system of belief I did not want to be—I was supporting an institute which propagated a certain belief, put me in a belief aggregate, that I did not want to be in. So it was time to leave. It was like smoking in the “hold onto your butts” car (perhaps a cliché is in order: “pulling a ‘hold onto your butts’ ” perhaps?). Despite the fact I didn’t “believe” the policing and hate, it was being believed for me—I was still within a system of belief acting on the world. What I would like to have thought of as a deep-seated, authentic belief was nothing more than a bumper-sticker belief on the engine of a gas-guzzling, beach-littering machine of a counteracting belief. Suffice to say, our beliefs are inherited, interconnected, disavowed, repressed, out-there, and mesh-y things. Mesh-y indeed.