I am a Republican and my wife is a Democrat. That requires certain compromises. One of these was the decision early in our marriage to keep our yard completely free of lawn signs. In retrospect, opting out of the sign wars has been a bigger blessing than we could have possibly imagined.
Lawn signs, in those pre-Trumpian days, were mostly a seasonal occurrence. When I was a kid, my parents often put one on our front lawn in Northeast Philly to promote our state representative’s latest bid for reelection. When the election was over, the sign came down. More garish displays were found (and still are) along major thoroughfares, especially those like Roosevelt Boulevard, which featured wide, grassy medians. But, as with the signs in people’s yards, these were supposed to be temporary. After the election, they eventually disappeared.
Things have changed on that score in the past four years. My neighborhood, like many in the region, saw the sprouting of a more robust crop of signs in 2016. They have proven to be a hardier, perennial version of the former annual variety: The “Hate Has No Home Here” placards. The sentiment is innocuous enough — who likes hate, right? These signs proclaim no partisan allegiance, just a public notice of the householder’s intolerance for hatred.
But their sudden appearance in the days immediately following the election of Donald Trump suggests a subtext that is impossible to deny. “Unlike some of you,” the sign implies, “I am not motivated by hatred.” The Republican response to these signs in our area was: More signs. The Montgomery County GOP promoted the counter-messaging of “Love Lives Here” signs in 2017. The signs mention specific objects of love — God, family, friends, country, community, and the Constitution — that all sound fairly neutral, but also clearly have a political subtext: “I, unlike some of you, love this country and its people.”
This year’s protests have also claimed a share of our lawn sign fights. Black Lives Matter signs duel with Support the Police banners in another level of miniature rival billboards.
A pair of houses not far from mine have had these two opposing signs in a mute standoff for three years now. Dueling lawn signs are a common feature of campaign season, but campaign season eventually ends. The new signs made our homes into another front in the permanent culture war. Displaying political messages is not new, but their persistent nature is.
Lawn signs are not going away anytime soon. Consider similar messaging events in our history. The “Star-Spangled Banner” was sung at some baseball games since the First World War, but in the Second World War, Major League Baseball and the National Football League made it an everyday occurrence as a part of the war effort. We still do it today, close to 80 years later. Likewise, the flag pins that every politician started wearing after 9/11 remain a feature of their attire today.
The reasoning is simple: If you supported flag and country in 1943, why not keep doing so in 1946? Or 1956? If a flag pin is good for national unity in 2001, is it less so in 2006 or 2011? There is no way to pull back on outward displays of patriotism without implying that you are now, for some reason, less patriotic than you used to be. The culture war signs have the same problem. If you pull down your sign, are you saying that hate now does, in fact, have a home here?
This year’s protests have also claimed a share of our lawn sign fights. Black Lives Matter signs duel with Support the Police banners in another level of miniature rival billboards. Again, it is possible for a non-political person to support both of these messages. I even saw one house that had both of them on the same lawn. Black lives do matter. The police are deserving of our support. There’s not necessarily a contradiction in the signs’ texts, only in their subtexts.
I rarely talk politics with my neighbors. When I do, it’s likely to be about the local school board or township commissioners, not the President or Congress. I don’t know all of their political opinions. Maybe they don’t know mine either, since my lawn only contains grass and flowers (and a few weeds, if I’m honest). Maybe they do know my politics and it doesn’t come up, and that seems typical of how many people deal with each other in real life.
Compare that to how people interact online. Someone’s Facebook photo or Twitter handle will often indicate their political views. Then, every interaction that follows is tainted by that. A neutral-sounding post will be viewed with suspicion when the author’s politics are the opposite of yours. Whatever low-effort slacktivism is present in their profile pic flavors their entire online persona.
On social media, there is the feeling that one must say something about everything. “Silence is violence” is one of the more vacuous slogans of the current movement, one that owes its popularity more to rhyme than logic. That’s a contrast to the old, real-world advice: “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” What is good manners in real life is cowardice to the Internet warriors.
These new, permanent lawn signs turn us into our social media personas, and many of us are far less pleasant online than we are in person. The distance of virtual interaction allows people to be meaner and less concerned about consequences. The Internet rewards cruelty and clever insults and ignores understanding and good faith. In real life, we look for common ground with the people we meet. Online, we look for things to fight about.
The sign wars have let that spirit of constant combat bleed over into formerly tranquil neighborhoods. What’s the solution? Consider unilateral disarmament. Trying to fit each person into a few boxes is limiting and makes us miss the nuance of real life. People are complicated. When we encounter each other in a neutral setting, we can understand this. But when we’re staring at each other across the typographic barricades, nuance is lost. Let’s wind down the sign wars and get back to being neighbors again.