Can protest signs be too cute?

Can Protest Signs Be Too Cute?

Can Protest Signs Be Too Cute?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Feb. 15 2017 4:13 PM

“Orange Is the New Whack”

Can protest signs be too cute?

170215_POL_Signs-Not-Today-Satan
A person holding a sign at the Women’s March on Washington on Jan. 21.

Lisa Larson-Walker

Trump’s unconstitutional and un-American Muslim ban has piqued a lot of dogs. The angry pooches appear at protests around the country wearing placards that announce their intention to fight authoritarianism. “I wag 4 refugees,” declare the signs hanging from their bodies. “I’m a dog and even I understand this is fucked.”

These pets’ commitment to democratic paradigms might warm your heart. Or maybe you find such Pixar humor—cute animals saying naughty things in a context generally glowing with good intentions—a bit precious for a political demonstration. These billboards might make you wonder about the point at which activism becomes too flippant or impressed with its own cleverness. One popular sign averred that “Trump Is Fake News.” (He’s not.) Another one pointed out that his approval ratings fall below the Rotten Tomatoes percentage for Paul Blart: Mall Cop. (Yes, Trump is worse than Kevin James.) At what point does our urge to express our individuality—and to do so with a wink—make us lose sight of the seriousness of Trump’s transgressions against our collective ideals?

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If you ask me, that line of argument misses the point and not just because squabbling over precisely how the opposition words its dismay seems like a bad look. Trump is a president uniquely obsessed with surfaces, and many of the issues that have confronted both citizens and journalists during his climb—should we take him literally or seriously or both?—are semiotic ones. Protests energize the populace, and they give us an opportunity to show off for each other, but they also send a message to the man transfixed by his own news coverage: Here are bodies in the streets. Here is proof of your unpopularity. The content of the posters matters less than their existence en masse.

That’s one reason why Trump developed such an ungodly fixation on his inaugural crowd count: Numbers speak to him in ways that language can’t. While some people undoubtedly fine-tune their protest signs to appeal to like-minded folks on social media (and maybe that’s not the noblest impulse), the performance they’re taking part in is, in the end, much blunter. The theater of activism can accommodate both decades-old slogans exalting democratic participation and of-the-moment wisecracks about the president’s hair.

Granted, it can be easy to lose sight of that fact in the face of so much simultaneously awesome and irritating signage. Unlike Inauguration Day’s modest sea of American flags and MAGA hats, the expressions of dissent we’ve seen over the past month have been deeply diverse. Some take aim at Trump’s personal appearance (“Orange is the new whack!”), his politics (“Pakistani dykes against fascism!”), his romantic history (“Without immigration Trump would have no wives!”), and his character (“Let them in Trump, you are being rude!”). A lot of them sincerely invoke stuff like the Constitution, democracy, and human dignity and compassion.

Cute poster children have also lent recent demonstrations a hopeful sweetness.

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This uplifting, future-facing trend reached its apotheosis in a viral photograph of a Jewish boy on his dad’s shoulders grinning at a Muslim girl on her dad’s shoulders, all four activists holding signs emblazoned with messages of love and tolerance.

Just as often, though, that earnestness shades into insults and raunch. “We will fill his wall with glory holes,” vowed one sign. “When they go low, we go high. Also, fuck you,” read another.

The filthiness of these messages isn’t throwaway humor: It’s a self-aware way of measuring just how dire the world has gotten. Statements like “Build a wall around him and I will pay for it” sound like snatches of nimbly referential comedy until you catch the desperate undertones. “You know it’s bad when Angelenos go to LAX willingly,” said one placard several weekends ago. Ha ha. But the subtext was: You know it’s bad when the goofballs who would make this sign to go protest have to actually make this sign and go protest.

My friend stayed with me during the weekend of the Women’s March on Washington. At a bar late Saturday night, she stared fiercely into her tiki cup, which contained a spray of tropical flowers and an adorable dolphin fashioned from a banana peel. “Why weren’t people angrier?” she asked. She speared her dolphin with a little purple umbrella. “I wanted the march to be angrier.”

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I picked up a plastic rapier the size of a toothpick and started sawing at a pineapple slice. “I think people are angry,” I said.

“Yeah, well.” My friend cast her vengeful eye around the sunset-colored Polynesian décor. “It doesn’t seem like it.”

Tiki bars are ironic places, havens of urban kitsch. They’re great if you want to both revel in and laugh at the gaudiness of your vacation fantasies. They’re not so great if you want to stab things with actual swords.

Should protests be ironic places? Writing in the New York Times, philosopher Christy Wampole claims that “a certain kind of seriousness is the precondition for the ascent to power.” If those who oppose Trump want to consolidate their might, she argues, they must rediscover “urgency,” avoid “smugness” and “dangerous cynicism,” and realize that “the luxury of ironic posturing is no longer affordable.”

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Walpole’s suspicion that certain liberals have hidden for too long behind a disaffected pose strikes me as easy for Trump supporters to weaponize and exploit. Consider that few of the most prominently memed signs are original. When you stumble across a seemingly idiosyncratic statement often enough, it can start to look like a personal cry of outrage has been commodified into a signal of group belonging. Apparently, a lot of people “aren’t usually sign guys, but jeez,” and it’s not just that their relative apathy (reinforced by a conspicuous unwillingness to come up with their own slogans) feels like a weird thing to rally around. The words appear emptied of their meaning.

Yet it’s reasonable to argue that sophisticated, funny mottos, strengthened through repetition, are something to applaud. “If democracy looks like the Women’s March on Washington,” wrote the Huffington Post, “it looks energized, creative, diverse, joyous, and ready to fight like hell for equality.” The merry commitment on display at anti-Trump rallies may speak to a healthy, sustainable resistance—one that might hold more long-term appeal than a movement founded on unending horrified outrage.

Few would deny that the Vietnam War protests were instrumental in remaking public opinion. They were also kind of a party: You showed up not just because you believed the United States should withdraw from Southeast Asia but because your friends were going, and you might hook up with someone, and the whole experience was just exciting. “It was fun, it was cool, it was the time of Haight-Ashbury and the hippies and drugs and rock-and-roll,” notes a retrospective on campus antiwar activism by the University of California at Berkeley. Take out the delight, and you whittle away less motivated demonstrators; trim the ranks, and your resistance might not grow large enough to make a difference. “Protest is the new Tinder,” a different friend told me when I asked her about the role of humor at 2017’s marches. “That’s a good thing.”

There’s much that’s heartening about the cardboard cornucopia our new government’s disastrous policies have produced. As historian Jim Downs has written, anti-Trump rallies have managed to unite “black, gay, environmental, feminist, and transgender activists” into a powerful coalition. Just as the abolitionist movement drew strength from organizing around temperance and labor rights, and the civil rights movement fused with the rise of feminism, various strands of progressivism are finding a common enemy in Washington. It matters that protesters have managed to arrive at the same place from so many different paths, and to express their solidarity in so many quirky, distinctive ways. It may not be perfect, but this is what democracy looks like.