Brownstone » Brownstone Journal » Philosophy » The Social Meaning of Hortatory Yard Signs 

The Social Meaning of Hortatory Yard Signs 


They’re difficult to miss, especially if you live near a well-to-do neighborhood in or near a US city. I’m talking, of course, about those lawn signs that, using various symbols and slogans, announce to all and sundry that the residents of the dwelling are implacably opposed to “hate.”

I must say I have a hard time taking either the signs or their planters seriously. 

In fact, viewing or hearing such messages always brings me back to the time when my then two-year old daughter took her first ride on the homemade swing her grandfather had hung for a very high branch of the oak tree in his yard. Owing to the height of the branch—some 20 feet above the ground—the swing had an awful lot of play. 

And when the early spring New England winds gusted up, it would twist her seat around and blow her side to side, and thus off the straight, back and forth arc I had started her on a minute or so before, an occurrence that made her sternly repeat to me, “Daddy Stop the Wind! Daddy, Stop the Wind!” 

I am happy to report that the intervening three decades have not eliminated my daughter’s beautiful willfulness. It has, however, tempered it in the sense that she now more carefully calibrates the chances that her outlay of this precious and, until recently, widely celebrated human resource might possibly result in the achievement of a concrete goal. 

Can our legion of sign-planters say the same? 

Well, if they believe hate is something that comes neatly bottled in a container that, upon being sighted in the course of their daily consumption choices they can judiciously eschew, or if they truly believe that it emits markers—be they verbal, biological, or ideological—that indicate in an absolutely failsafe manner the desire in the heart of a person to wish harm or destruction upon another, and that they possess an as yet unidentified power to enter into that heart and surgically extirpate the hate while leaving all the surrounding goodness intact, then I guess they can. 

If not, then they are pretty much in the same position of my willful but naive two-year-old daughter; they are humans using their verbal capacities to emit desires that have absolutely no possibility of rendering real any of the things they claim to so ardently desire. 

Public exhortations designed to elicit improved moral behavior in others are, of course, nothing new. What they have historically had in common, however, is a request or even a demand that the target of the urging conduct an inventory of his or her own inner life. By doing it in this way the exhorter acknowledges his belief in the addressee’s essential humanity, agency, and potential for moral redemption. 

However, when our sign-planters declare, for example, that “Hate has no home here,” they are saying something very different. They are saying that whomever they deem as engaging in “hate” are not to be dealt with in any way that recognizes common humanity of the two parties. 

They are also saying that such people are to be banished from polite society, an action that, of course, forecloses the advent of honest, dialogue-inspired introspection, and from there, the possibility the “hater” might have a change of heart. 

More dangerous still is how the sign essentially proclaims that its owners are, in contradistinction to everything that every tradition of moral teaching throughout the ages has indicated, themselves congenitally free of the desire to wish discomfort and/or destruction on their fellow men. 

Or to once again paraphrase Sartre, they are suggesting that for them “Hate is other people,” a truth made evident, of course, in the gentle and loving way the avowed anti-hate shock troops treat those who don’t share their views in public forums, or how during Covid so many of the same sign-wielding moralists approached those with reserves about the government policy on the virus with nothing but love-powered invitations to frank and substantive dialogue. 

In other words, I as a fallible human being harbor negative feelings about others, and, of course dear reader, you do too. 

But, apparently there are a small number of other people who, owing to their exposure to the right educational institutions and/or their relative success in the financial rat race, have magically transcended the tendency to act out in unloving ways. 

How exactly does one manage to arrive to adulthood with such infantile mental binaries fully and shamelessly intact? 

I’m not sure I know, but I’ll give it a try. 

There is in the minds of our ever more secular, materialist, and well-fed elites a generalized lack of consciousness about the enduring and often determining presence of the tragic, the paradoxical and the absurd in human lives. 

Growing up in a nice suburb and studying at a brand-name university one can really come to believe that life is inherently well-ordered, and that “doing well” within it is mostly about getting in with the right people and following the right rules and processes. 

Implied within this code of conduct is the need to consciously avoid the expression of powerful raw emotions like fear, anxiety, sexual passion, or dare we say it, “hate.” 

Indeed, to go along and get along in this world which I know a little about often means consistently adopting a façade of cool to cover these very real and perennially determinative human feelings. 

Better still, according to certain denizens of this world I have known, is to simply learn to never let such unpleasant emotions come into your field of consciousness. Rather, the key is to place them in a mental holding tank upon their entry into your vicinity, and as that tank fills up, you release them unprocessed—like a ship captain emptying the bilge—through occasional drug or alcohol-fueled frenzies.

Which, of course, works great, until it doesn’t. 

And when is that? 

It happens when the actions of the elite leaders in whom you’ve invested so much emotional energy, and whom you’ve seen as the guarantors of your day upward trajectory toward enlightenment, success, and yes, a good bit of dominion over others, decide for reasons having to do with their own lust of greed or power, to abruptly change the rules of the game. 

At this point, you have the choice of admitting what is happening before your eyes, and what it portends in terms of the need to change your assumptions and your conduct, or doubling down instead on the essential wisdom and sanctity of those who’ve functioned as your guiding stars through your assent through the ranks. 

And what we’ve learned over the last three years is that only a surprisingly small percentage of our strivers have the fortitude and/or the mental flexibility to do the former. 

Why? Again, it’s hard to know exactly why. But my sense is that it has a lot to do with the fear of living in a moral void. 

The religion of American success, especially in the frenetic and totalizing way, has been promulgated over the last three to four decades, and leaves little room, beyond occasional ornamental incantations, for its parishioners to dialogue with pre-existing moral traditions and precepts. 

To “get ahead” in this adrenaline-fueled world all too often requires (or is perceived as requiring) that we see the practice of reflecting on our actions in light of the moral lessons learned in childhood as, at best, an impediment to “efficiency” and at worst as a bellwether regarding one’s lack of fitness for the game achieving the only transversally recognized value in our culture: material success. 

In short, many, if not most of those who have prospered under our current social system have very few resources at their disposal for constructing a sense of moral coherence before the abject collapse of the system of “certainties” they thought would see them happily and placidly to their demise. 

And so, like addicts blind to the diminishing returns of their chemical dependence, they double and triple down on the truisms of the system that has functioned as the endoskeleton of their moral lives. 

They know they are uncomfortable. But unable—owing to their long practice of subcontracting their inner feelings and instincts out to the masters of “The Game”—to truly understand what is happening to them, they flail about and issue fatwas against “hate,” a primary human sentiment present in all of us, convinced in their desperate delirium, that the injunction will resolve the deep disease they are feeling inside. 

Needless to say, it won’t. And every moment they insist it will is time robbed from the necessary process of engaging mindfully and fearlessly with the enormity of what is actually happening right before their eyes.

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  • Thomas Harrington

    Thomas Harrington, Senior Brownstone Scholar and Brownstone Fellow, is Professor Emeritus of Hispanic Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, CT, where he taught for 24 years. His research is on Iberian movements of national identity and contemporary Catalan culture. His essays are published at Words in The Pursuit of Light.

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