I’ve written before that one problem (we) progressives/leftists/whatever-you-want-to-call-us have is a failure to imagine the way our messages might read to others outside our sometimes too-cozy orbit. I’m probably sensitive to this notion because my day job is teaching writing – and one thing writers must be aware of is their audience, and the ways they need to shape writing to reach (or, often, form) that audience.
If you think about it, you’ll realize that there are three basic ways you can position yourself relative to any bit of language (spoken or written). You can stand outside it, utterly neutral, with the language being regarded merely as conveying information: for example, a scoreboard at a stadium listing the results of a game between two teams you don’t care about. You can place yourself alongside the statement’s speaker, including yourself in its “I” – whether that’s literally true (“We’re leaving as soon as I finish”) or implicit. Or, you can find yourself addressed as the “you” of the statement – again, explicitly or implicitly (“Jeff, come over here for a second”).
So, we ended up driving into our food co-op’s parking lot the other day behind a Subaru wagon with a bumper sticker that said DON’T ASSUME I SHARE YOUR PREJUDICES. On the one hand, I certainly get (and appreciate) the overt message here. I’ve been in such situations – like the bunch of guys bellowing stupid and sexist assumptions about women, assuming I’ll concur; or the racist assuming I’ll agree with him because I’m white. But as a bumper sticker, this becomes a bit more problematic. It works reasonably well if you’re including yourself in the phrase’s “I”: yeah, I don’t share those prejudices either. But the moment you put yourself in the “you” position, it becomes…well, obnoxious.
First, there’s the matter of the phrase being an imperative: the bumper sticker (which is to imply, the car’s driver) is telling you what to do. Most people don’t like being told what to do, or think. Even worse, the phrase is making a claim about you: that you have “prejudices” – and that word does not connote anything nice.
As an attempt at anything other than pat-on-the-back-seeking, that is, this bumper sticker fails miserably. If we’re going to try to persuade anyone who doesn’t already agree with us that our ideas are good ones, we’ll have to do a lot better than calling them names and telling them how to live their lives. In other words, don’t assume your audience has prejudices they need to be shamed for.