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Philosophical Reflections: Coexist Bumper Stickers

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co·ex·ist

verb (used without object)

1. to exist together or at the same time.

2. to exist separately or independently but peaceably, often while remaining rivals or adversaries: Although their ideologies differ greatly, the two great powers must coexist.

(as defined by dictionary.com)

We have all seen them. Coexist bumper stickers. Perhaps you even have one yourself. I saw the one up above as I drove to work the other day. The “C” stands for Islam. The “o” stands for Pacifism/Peace. The “e” (at least according to one interpretation) stands for gay rights or male/female (I have also seen e=mc^2 for science). The “x” is the Star of David, a symbol of Judaism. The “i” is a Pagan/Wiccan symbol. The “s” is for Taoism/Confucianism. The “t” is for Christianity. While each of these letters could be turned into a different symbol representing some other belief system, the point is that each letter represent a set of beliefs/people with beliefs that is often at odds with the other beliefs/people represented by the other symbols. The sticker calls each belief system/people with beliefs to “coexist.”

I thought about the meaning of this sticker as I drove to work. What is it’s message? It seems to me that it can be interpreted in several ways. The sentence below captures several interpretations:

Seemingly/actually differing (or conflicting) people/beliefs ought to live peacefully together/separately while remaining rivals or adversaries.

There are 3 places for options of interpretation:

1. Seemingly/actually

2. People/beliefs:

3. Together/separately while remaining rivals or adversaries:

Let’s focus on these pairings to explore the several interpretations of this sticker.

Is there an actual conflict of belief, or only the appearance of conflict of belief? Is there an actual conflict of people, or only an appearance of conflict of people?

If this sticker is about people, I think we can all agree that there is an actual conflict or difference among the people represented by these letters. These people are different from each other. These people are not living peacefully together. They are not often making strides towards greater unity of belief or action, and they are not often content to simply leave each other alone. They are differing and conflicting in actuality.

I think this interpretation is legitimate, but it’s not very interesting philosophically. Apart from perhaps a few extremists in each camp, I think we can all agree that it is desirable that people in each camp live peacefully. If not striving for greater unity of belief and togetherness, at least we ought to live peacefully while discussing our conflicting differences and tolerating each other’s separate existence. Violence and coercion (physical, moral, emotional, economic, etc.) is to be avoided. I have no problem with that.

If this sticker is about belief, then it is less clear what the message is about.

(1) Some people that have this sticker will say that the beliefs are only seemingly conflicting, while actually being at least complimentary or perhaps basically the same. These beliefs may actually differ in terms of the syntax used, but the semantics of the beliefs are roughly the same.

(2) Others will say that there is an actual conflict of belief – one cannot hold all of these beliefs at the same time without contradiction. The difference and conflict is not only syntactic, it is also semantic.

Even if we have decided whether we believe 1 or 2, we still have to decide what to do about it:

(A) We ought to try to bring our beliefs together, to strive for greater unity in our beliefs. Ultimately, the goal would be that we all believe the same things and have one coherent belief system.

(B) We ought to respect each other’s beliefs and leave each other alone. It’s fine for us to believe different things and maintain a separate existence.

So we have 4 possible interpretation combinations as a result:

(1A) Our beliefs are basically the same. As such, we ought to expose the apparent differences of our beliefs so that we can all have the same set of coherent beliefs, both in appearance and actuality.

(1B) Our beliefs are basically the same, but it is permissible to let the apparent differences remain.

(2A) Our beliefs are actually in conflict. As such, we ought to address the conflicts in our beliefs so that we can all have the same set of coherent beliefs, both in appearance and actuality.

(2B) Our beliefs are actually in conflict, but it is permissible to let the conflicts remain.

I think people will have different opinions on which interpretation is correct (i.e., which one states the actual state of affairs regarding the variety of belief systems in the world), even though most of us will agree that whatever the case may be, violence and coercion is not permissible. As such, beliefs about these statements are themselves in conflict and irreconcilable.

Let me illustrate my point. A person that believes (1) will have an incredibly difficult time talking to a person that believes (2). For example, I may say, “Christianity claims that Jesus is the Son of God while Islam claims that Jesus was only a prophet. Hence, there is a real conflict.” You may say that, “Well, ‘Son of God’ and ‘prophet’ amount to the same thing really once we look into these matters further, so there really is no disagreement.” How can I respond? I will say, “No, they don’t amount to the same thing. There really is a difference.” To which you respond, “No, there isn’t.” It is unlikely that either will persuade the other if they both hold onto their beliefs, leading to an impasse.

Similarly, a person that holds A will inevitably be in conflict with a person that holds B. If I hold A, I will work hard to persuade you, convince you, that your beliefs are wrong (because obviously mine are correct, otherwise I wouldn’t believe them) or simply different from mine (either because they are only apparently conflicting, or there is no fact of the matter and it’s just your opinion versus mine). Meanwhile, you simply want to be left alone to believe what you believe, and as such, will resist attempts to change your mind. What happens in this situation? I will either need to give up (which I can’t if I take A seriously) or you will need to change your mind. If I can’t change your mind, then I must resort to violence or coercion to force your conversion. But we have already agreed that that is not permissible. So once again, we are at an impasse.

Consequently, I think that some interpretations of “coexist” are simply naive and impossible to achieve. I think (1A) and (1B) ignore the pretty obvious fact that beliefs are actually in conflict. Those that claim that the conflicts or differences are merely syntactic seem to either not know much about the differing belief systems, or they seem to believe that words have no semantic content to them, that there is no objective reality that these words are latching onto. Hence, there can be no actual disagreement (think emotivism as applied to this discussion). Of course, this just moves the disagreement up to the next propositional level, where there is an actual disagreement about whether or not there is an actual disagreement in these belief systems. Ad infinitum.

Given this, I think the most charitable and interesting interpretation of the message of these coexist stickers is somewhere in the middle of (2A) and (2B). These belief systems are actually in conflict. It is desirable that we address the conflicts in our beliefs so that we can all have the same set of coherent beliefs. However, given that an impasse will often occur between people strictly holding A with those holding B, one must let conflicts of belief remain and tolerate the differing beliefs of others if an impasse is reached. We should strive for unity while tolerating diversity of belief.

Concluding Thoughts:

Is this message correct? I think so, but only to a point. As long as it is not used to suggest that there are no real differences in belief or that these differences do not matter. However, I do wonder about the extremists who will hold unswervingly to A, particularly, 2A. What happens when an impasse is reached? Convinced of the rightness of his or her beliefs (including the rightness of 2A), history shows us that it is difficult to resist the temptation to use violence and coercion (physical, moral, emotional, economic) to impose one’s views on others. When this happens, and others resort to violence or coercion to change our beliefs, how must we act?

To hold to B is folly, since the extremist will not let us maintain a separate existence. To hold 1 seems to deny the obvious conflict. So it seems we too must become extreme proponents of 2A. And then at that point,we have these options:

1. resort to violence and coercion in response to defend our beliefs and ourselves

2. accept the violence and coercion imposed on us (even to death) while maintaining our beliefs.

3. adopt the extremist’s beliefs and convert

At this point, the only way to coexist is to adopt 3. But if we hold our beliefs to be true, so much so that we would die for them (as many religious people would), then we are left with 1 and 2 as our options. One must either fight for one’s beliefs, or suffer martyrdom. One can no longer coexist.

Have we reached that point? Not quite in the US, but our ability to maintain a coexistence as male/female, Republican/Democrat, liberal/conservative, theist/atheist is certainly getting harder and harder as our conflicting beliefs have become more difficult to accommodate in the public sphere. Without a return to the message of these bumper stickers by all, it seems unlikely that any of us will be able continue to coexist for much longer.

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