Enriching the College Experience With Détournements (Signs, Etc.)

Coming Soon to a Campus Near You...

Signs that will enrich the college experience

Caveat: The recommendations below have been written for those practicing idealists who prefer a more confrontational approach to broadening the range of social discourse. Keep in mind, however, that a confrontational style may prove counterproductive as perceivers will confuse healthy challenges to staid patterns of thought with the simplistic techniques normally employed by the mainstream culture to shock and manipulate them. 

Can there be freedom of speech wihout freedom of thought? Can there be freedom of thought if certain topics become so taboo, people censor their own thoughts out of fear of having a forbidden one?

The professors in the classes are not asking the tough questions. The speakers on TED.com are not tackling the difficult issues (for example see this). Shock jocks of various stripes make millions by saying shocking things, allowing people’s psyches to vicariously let off steam. But the channel through which they address you is a one-way channel, like your school’s PA system. No back-talk allowed. And none of the important issues they milk for material ever gets resolved. Because if discourse in society became truly free, no one would pay attention to them anymore.

Creating signs and standing by them brings taboo subjects into the public light and compels a response. The reaction can take the form of shock, anger, open discussion (calm or heated), constructive criticism, or amusement. If someone dismisses the sign and walks by, that too is a significant, existentially meaningful reaction.

If you suspect someone who goes on and on about how tolerant they are is being disingenuous, accuse them of being intolerant. If they get angry, you’ll know the accusation was true.

Suggested preparatory reading:

1. Guy Debord, “Society of the Spectacle” — the classic description the virtual reality created by the media, written 30 years before the Internet. If you understand the first two pages, you won’t need to read any further.

2. Jim Goad, “Redneck Manifesto” — writing in the early 90s, Goad foresaw the havoc political correctnesss would wreak on clarity of thought and intelligent discourse long before it became cool to pretend to be politically incorrect.

3. Saul Alinksy interview from 1972 — strategy and tactics from an activist whose creativity and determination knew know bounds. Alinksy recounts how and why he got involved in various forms of activism. Alinsky was studied by both Obama and Hillary Clinton before they sold out to the system (or were in some way coerced into abandoning their idealism).

Suggested guidelines:

At a public university, anyone has the right to stand with a non-obscene sign if that person does not block walkways and does not intimidate passersby. Since the purpose of these suggestions is to break the spirit of the law while not violating the letter of the law, adherence to the guidelines below will help make this a reality.

1. Stand silently. Do not talk to anyone until after they first address you. Otherwise you can be accused of trying to intimidate people.

2. Get a feel for how much unsolicited eye contact will not be considered threatening where you are. In Seattle, you cannot make eye contact with anyone for more than about 1-2 seconds. If you are a man and do so, most women will give you a phony, “stay-the-fuck-away-from-me” smile in response and quicken their pace away from you.

3. Never accept monetary donations of any kind under any pretext. Otherwise, the authorities can make you acquire a business permit, or register as a charitable organization and report the proceeds you collect, or in some other way inhibit your freedom of action. It is probably okay to accept cups of coffee, sandwiches and other small gifts friends would give each other as a matter of course.

4. Do not argue with anyone. Do not get offended. Do not become upset. Do not lose your temper. Ask probing questions to get at why people who express their opinions to you think the way they do. People must see you are genuinely interested in what they think and what they have to say. (And if you aren’t, don’t stand out with a sign.)

5. If your campus has designated free-speech zones, you can protect yourself against accusations of engaging in hate speech by making it clear that no thoughts you express are your own. For example, don’t ask directly:

Why would putting together the syllables ‘nig-’ and ’-ger’—sounds which have no intrinsic meaning—and saying them aloud outside of any racial context, be considered hate speech?

Instead, say:

Someone asked me the other day: “Why is putting together the syllables ‘nig-’ and ’-ger’, sounds which have no intrinsic meaning, and saying them aloud outside of any racial context, considered hate speech?” and I didn’t know how to answer them.

If you manage to get together discussion groups outside of free-speech zones and wish to avoid hassles with the authorities or accusations of being intolerant, have participants preface any idea they express with: “I overheard someone saying they other day that...”.

Any university administration reprimanding a student for quoting something someone said would be making itself look ridiculous—for all the world to see.

6. If the content of a sign leads to your being asked to leave campus, ask a compatriot to come back the next day and continue to stand by the sign with an iPhone or iPad with a Skype connection so that you can continue to interact in real time with students who show an interest in your signs from a remote, off-campus location.

7. I would recommend against asking someone out on a date. In spite of the fact that I did not ask anyone out or otherwise come on to anyone in any way, one woman said she suspected my offer of free help with homework was for the purpose of “taking advantage of some of the women from other countries who might be too trusting” (see the “Postscript” on this page). It is probably okay to accept an invitation to a social function or an invitation to meet someone for discussion.

Suggested Signs

"Resist not evil." - Jesus Christ
Some will think a declaration that you don't hate Hitler means you like (or love) him or espouse his ideas. After you have listened patiently to criticism or attacks of this nature, you can state calmly that you don't hate Hitler simply because you don't hate anyone. You can further make the point that a negation of a negative does not necessarily imply what is usually considered the opposite, i.e. if you don't hate something that does not necessarily mean you love it. Resistence to evil feeds evil, and those who, with seemingly righteous indignation, take vengeance on those who have harmed them, risk spawning identical righteously indignant revenge in the future, in a never-ending cycle of hatred.

Ironically, by declaring yourself the potential target of a drone attack, you may very well be making yourself into the potential target of a drone attack. If the authorities interpret the sign as a threat to the safety of others "made with the intent of influencing the policy of the government by intimidation or coercion," the Department of Homeland Security might classify you as a terrorist, and order a drone strike...

Read Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” outloud without changing the text. If you are good at imitating the white and black southern accents, do so. If you as a white person are accused of being racist for imitating black speech, ask why it is not classist to imitate white rural speech.

If you are asked to leave campus for repeating the word “nigger” many times, the university will be rightly ridiculed all over the world for ejecting someone from campus for reading THE great American novel aloud.

This sign will generate more controversy if the person standing with the sign is a white guy in black face. Those who object to a white man wearing black face will have to explain why covering one’s face with black shoe polish is racist, especially when that person is standing by a sign which can be interpreted as a call for white people to get in touch with their feelings of guilt for slavery and racial discrimination.

Variation: Go to class wearing black face. Do not imitate stereotypical black speech or mannerisms in any way. If accused of being racist, insist that your intention is not to be so. If you get into trouble, ask why piercings, mohawks and various Goth tatoos are permitted, but you are not allowed to cover your face with shoe polish. Ask if green polish would be acceptable. If it would, ask why.

“Take away the right to say ‘fuck’ and you take away the right to say ‘fuck the goverment’.” - Lenny Bruce

If a white person is not permitted to use the word “nigger” under any circumstances, then s/he may not refer to Harry Belafonte quoting Malcom X to refer to Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice as the “house niggers” of the Bush administration. The use of the word "nigger" by any adult person must be considered protected political speech in accordance with rights granted under the First Amendment.

Indeed this quote, arguably the most important statement in Belafonte’s life—and second most famous after “Come, Mister tally man, tally me banana”—is difficult to find on today’s sanitized internet (but see this). You won’t find it on wikipedia. And, when you look up the words to the Banana Boat Song, this warning pops up: 

This song is considered sensitive and may contain lyrics that cause offensive [sic] to some people. Please speak to a parent or guardian for further help.

If you wish to further highlight the utter absurdity of the situation, you can ask someone else to write the word on the sign so that you can state in all honesty that you yourself did not use (produce) the word. Better still, you could ask several friends to choose by random which of them would write the word for you and ask them not to tell you who had done so, so that you could in all sincerity say that you did not know who had written it. Best of all would be ask a group of African American friends to choose someone randomly among them to write the word. Therefore you will be able to say honestly—and a polygraph would confirm—that you did not write it yourself and do not know who wrote it, but you know it was written by an African American.

In this reddit thread a black guy writes:

“Black people are one of the last races that take serious offense to teasing. Not to say it isn't justified, but ever since I made this realization I haven't been truly offended by black jokes since, and when people get no reaction from you, they tend to stop. I truly, truly, believe this is the only way racism will come to a realistic and complete end. I'm still working on my immunity to “nigger,” so I actually encourage my friends to use it around me so I stop flinching. I mean, why should I take offense? It's only been used maliciously on me by people that just want to win an argument or get a rise out of me. But now if someone calls me that in the middle of an debate I'll just be like, that's it. He has nothing left. I've won the argument.”


”...I was just trying to make a point, and that is that it's the suppression of the word that gives it the power, the violence, the viciousness. Dig: if President Kennedy would just go on television, and say, "I would like to introduce you to all the niggers in my cabinet," and if he'd just say "nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger" to every nigger he saw, "boogie boogie boogie boogie boogie," "nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger" 'til nigger didn't mean anything anymore, then you could never make some six-year-old black kid cry because somebody called him a nigger at school.” - Lenny Bruce 

This sign would be sure to generate a wide range of interesting and potentially highly emotional responses. Some would support the idea without thinking of its deeper implications and others would rush to argue against it on the grounds that it would be inhumane. Perceivers who are more conscious, more in the “here and now,” would take an interest in learning more about the purpose of such a sign.


Here is an article in which the author talks about a student at Cambridge University who thinks sexual consent classes were a good idea as they could weed out "pre-rapists."

Give away a free sex change to the person who figures out the deeper meaning of this sign.

White men are often accused of stereotyping unfairly. Thus many would appreciate the sign for its implicit call that they stop doing so. The paradox here is that the sign—made by a white man—itself expresses a blanket stereotype of white men. Does that prove the case that white men always stereotype? Do all white men do so? If not, is then the sign inherently false? Should non-white men (women, black men and others) object to the message on the sign?

This sign will only work, of course, if a white man stands out with it.

If you are a white male heterosexual gentile, a simple statement of fact such as this should not cause offense in a tolerant society. If it does... 

See this article: Student Rejected for Diversity Post Because He is "White"

It will be very interesting to see what type of a response this sign generates. If women come up to object to the sign, very calmly listen to their line of reasoning. Try to elicit as complete an explanation as possible. It will be interesting to see whether someone suspects the sign of being a subtily snide comment meant to be read with the following intonation: “WOMEN ARE, TOO, SMART”.

This sign serves as a good gage of the paranoia level on college campuses. If a declaration one is not a terrorist is perceived as a potential terrorist threat, you’ll know the paranoia level is moving from yellow (“Elevated”) to orange (“High”).

Many countries have monuments paying tribute to the soldiers who have died in wars fighting for their country but whose names were not known. Why do we not celebrate those who were killed for refusing to kill?

If there is a draft, people can be imprisoned for refusing to fight. If soldiers during battle refuse to fight and leave the battlefield, they can shot as deserters. Is this not tantamount to killing for refusing to kill on command?


“—A merchant, Stephen said, is one who buys cheap and sells dear, jew or gentile, is he not?”
- James Joyce, “Ulysses”

If asked whether the sign is meant to be anti-semitic you can answer the question with a question: “Atheists are those who do not believe in the soul, Jewish or gentile, are they not?”

The “Ministry of Truth” on this sign is from Orwell’s “1984”, a vision of a society in which the authoritarian state has taken complete control over people’s consciousness. The sign suggests that it would be in the interest of an authoritarian state to convince people never to engage in any activity which is not in some way represented or expressed in cyberspace. It foresees a dystopian future in which it is immoral to unplug oneself completely from the internet. It suggests that we are all caught inextricably in the world wide web.

Variation: “AWOL FROM IRL”

This is a good sign to display next to a poster announcing a performance of “The Vagina Monologues.”


It should be especially interesting to see how this sign is interpreted by people not familiar with the McLuhan quote: “The medium is the message.”


It will be interesting to see who (and on what grounds) tries to convince you that there is something you absolutely must be in denial about.

Just to mix things up...

For more ideas for détournements, see here.

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