Why I Did It: The Purpose Behind Signs on the Quad

The Purposes behind Signs on the Quad

When approached on campus and asked what my goal was in standing out silently in the cold next to signs, I would answer—quite truthfully—that I had no goal. (Incidentally, someone apparently happened upon my blog by googling "for the purpose of having no purpose"). When asked if there was some purpose to what I was doing, I answered that there were so many they would take too long to list. Since the reader has the opportunity to speedread or skip over text, here are those purposes:

General purposes (in no particular order):

— to propose for contemplation and discussion topics I considered important and which I felt were too rarely brought up in college classrooms or informal conversation

— to show that it's possible to do something without having an overriding goal in mind

— to create a new genre: a truly interactive, collective work of art, one that is not complete without feedback and co-participation from its perceivers

— to test the limits of freedom of speech in society

— to test the limits of discourse by composing edgy signs that touch on sensitive issues or use language people usually avoid out of fear of offending others

— to create my own unofficial Peace Corps stint in a developing country (that is, the United States), the purpose being to develop freedom of discourse in the place it is most needed

— to suggest through the paradoxical, self-referential or ambiguous nature of the messages on the signs that there can be important questions to which there is no single, clear-cut answer

— to embolden others to do similar things that they might have been afraid to do for fear of ridicule, in the spirit of the story "Stone Soup"

— to break up the monotony of university life

— to show that it is possible to get out an important message without the use of any electronic media

— to draw attention to actions taking place outside of virtual reality

— to show students that, in spite of the fact that they don't have university degrees, there is at least one person—me—who is genuinely interested in their opinions

— to inject into the noosphere a meme whose character (meaning) is independent of its creator; if I were to disappear tomorrow, the ideas the signs released into the noosphere would continue to reproduce and mutate

— to create ambiguous, multi-layered messages that could admit of numerous interpretations, which could then be recorded and analyzed

— to trace the spread of an idea expressed outside of any electronic medium; how fast does such information spread? by what channels? how and in what ways is it distorted?

— to do something considered foolish so that others might not feel so foolish when they do things that fall outside of the norm

— to provide students with an opportunity to test their willingness to engage in non-conformist behavior by coming up to talk to me and to gain an impression of the approximate range of opinion and attitudes of those students who did so

— to select and bring together the bolder and more curious students so that they might spend time talking with each other outside of class and outside of virtual reality

— to do something in the vein of the oral histories compiled by Studs Turkel by recording conversations about students' thoughts and attitudes as material for study by future sociologists and historians

— to break up the university's implicit monopoly on teaching and inquiry

— to be subversive in a way so subtle that no power structure would think to try to ridicule or suppress the ideas expressed through the messages; to show it is possible to break the spirit of the law without violating the letter of the law

— to help break the media-induced hypnotic trance most people wander around in

— to do something in the spirit of practicing idealism

— to do something in the spirit of active Christian love

— to do something in the spirit of détournements

— to prove it is possible to do something on one's own personal initiative alone

— since I had imagined such an experience and written up my predictions of what the effect would be (see here), to compare the actual effect with what I had imagined

— to establish a new type of social science—which I dub "pure social science"—by conducting an experiment without first proposing a hypothesis

— to show by example that one can be conscious of one's own multiple motivations for one's actions and that one can do something without a goal or expected result

— to see what response can be provoked by a completely innocuous act, but one that falls outside of the norm

— to show the limits and limitations of language when expressing complex ideas

— to show that a phrase can be interpreted in a certain way even if the utterer of the phrase insists on another meaning or insists that the phrase has no meaning whatsoever; to see if memes take on a life of their own

— to show that something can exist that cannot be easily classified or labeled

— by standing by the signs and permitting people to ask questions about them, to suggest that the meaning of the signs is more than just the words on them

— a tribute to the efforts of Bigfoot to engage students in a meaningful dialogue

— to suggest to people that altruistic behavior is not a fiction

— to see to what extent strangers would open up to someone who is not soliciting donations or pushing an agenda but who nevertheless shows a genuine interest in what they have to say

— to spark a revolution which would lead to a Quad filled with students all learning from each other; it would be a revolution not against anything, however, as I would hope the students would have the presence of mind to invite faculty and staff to join them, and that enough professors and administrators would have the courage to do so. (N.B. this would have required tearing up the walkways on the Quad which would otherwise have given people an excuse to divide themselves up unnecessarily into conflicting groups)

Purposes of a personal nature (in no particular order):

— to further my ongoing study into the interaction between the individual and society

— to see whether I can learn to recognize and keep track of a large number of people

— to develop my patience: I did not speak to anyone who didn't first address me but waited patiently to be approached

— to see whether I had the courage to expose myself to public ridicule and remain indifferent to personal attacks

— to prove to myself and to people who have had a low opinion of me over the years that I am capable of contributing something of value to society

— to carry out the spiritual technique of observing others as they pass by and imagining as viscerally as possible that I could be any one of those people

— to learn from people what they have to teach by asking questions of them

— to place myself physically in a position I have felt myself in figuratively for much of my life—namely that of an outside observer—in order to better understand such a position and role

— to stand under a magnificent sequoia tree (where I didn't need an umbrella when it rained) and watch the owls, ravens, robins, seagulls, sparrows, squirrels and people

Background Notes

I dream of one day waking up in a world where standing with signs out on the University of Washington Quad would be a meaningless waste of time.

Twenty years ago as an undergrad at the University of Washington I had never heard the term "political correctness." But I found myself asking several times a day "Why is everything forbidden here?" The only answer I would get—outside of anger and blank stares—was: "What do you mean? This is a free country."

It was seven years before South Park was conceived. The Simpsons was still considered sometimes edgy satire. My friend Brian (it was his idea) and I decided it would be funny to go to the supermarket on Martin Luther King Day—the first day after it had been declared a national holiday—to buy fried chicken and watermelon. Getting to the store and finding they had sold out of watermelon, we asked loudly, "No watermelon? Is it a holiday or something?" When we told white dormmates what we had done, we were shunned and ostracized by them and whispered about behind our backs. We didn't have any close friends who were black and neither did they. Did most black people like fried chicken and watermelon? We didn't know. If they did, why was it wrong to say that? I liked fried chicken and watermelon. Would it be racist for a black person to say I did? I was sorry some black people had been slaves. I'm sorry anyone ever had to be a slave. But I never had a slave and sincerely would not want to have one. As far as I knew, no one in my family had ever been a slave owner. And if they had, why should I feel guilt for the behavior of someone I never knew who was long since dead? Our point was not to offend people of another race or perpetuate racial stereotypes. I simply wanted to know why a whole collegeload of people would unquestioningly accept the notion that to make generalizations about the eating habits of members of another race was completely unacceptable. We were testing the limits of discourse in a society that was constantly proclaiming itself free and tolerant in order to discover for ourselves whether it was and, if it wasn’t, to make that clear to others. If I, today, freely and voluntarily accept without question the notion that it should be forbidden for me to make generalizations based on my actual experience with respect to particular groups of people (but not others), what limitations on freedom are likely to be put into place tomorrow?

I began to suspect that I possessed some mortal character flaw that drove people away. I simply could not believe that people would limit themselves in conversation to the banal topics fed to them in the media. I saw inherent to the college experience a mutually enriching joint exploration of ideas and expansion of one’s worldview. Surely that had to include the uninhibited sharing of intimate thoughts, impressions and experience.

Before I had heard of the concept of the meme or of meme warfare, and before I had read Guy Debord’s “Society of the Spectacle,” I began to ponder what makes certain topics taboo. I examined the range of discourse related to various "issues" and noticed that how topics of debate or discussion were framed could predetermine the range of opinions that could—and would—be heard with respect to that particular “meme space.” At the time I thought this was a societal phenomenon that just happened by itself. I later came to suspect that the process was being driven by people with a vested interest in narrowing the range of discourse.

Origin of the Idea

The idea of standing on the campus of the University of Washington came to me shortly after the incidents of September 11, 2001. My first three thoughts, in order, within three seconds of seeing the result of the events on TV were:
1. This means the end of civil liberties in the US;
2. Now the US military is going to bomb some place;
3. This will ruin the economy.

I decided I could not put off any longer trying to do something to break the media-induced trance 90+% of Americans walk around in. I appreciated very much seeing that on the next day many non-Arab women, mostly in Seattle I think, wore head scarves or burqas to class or to work.

If I had been living in the US at the time I would have walked around the next day carrying a sign that read: "I AM NOT A TERRORIST" knowing that the paranoia in the country that had been generated by the media would mean that even such an innocuous statement would offend and probably frighten people and attract the attention of the police. My intention was not, however, to offend or frighten, but merely to point out that people had become conditioned by subtle, sophisticated messages transmitted to them primarily through the media, and that they had been conditioned to engage in self-censorship that was allowing a creeping erosion of civil liberties and a stifling of needed questioning, which ultimately could lead to mass insanity as people swept under the rug thoughts that would occur to them that they would fail to think through to their logical conclusions.

I felt, therefore, that it was necessary to ponder how to break the media-induced trance through means that would not be perceived as threatening or offensive. I thought it would be even more clever to express ideas in a way that the control system would not perceive as a threat to its dominance over people's consciousness. It would have to be something sufficiently subtle and cryptic—perhaps absurd—for it to fly below the radar and into the minds of those who had at least partially awakened from their media-induced slumber.

Signs on the Quad as an "Existential" Experiment

I initially intended to call what I did an existential experiment. It would differ from traditional scientific experiments in that it would be open-ended—at both ends. That is, it would not posit a hypothesis, and thus I would not need to reject, cherry-pick or fudge data to conform to preconceived expectations. In addition, it would not presuppose any obligation on my part to draw from it any conclusions. I have done so anyway, but did not at any time feel obligated to do so. More importantly, by treating what happened in a come-what-may manner, I left myself open to an enormous amount of learning and discovery.

Signs on the Quad is not purely an experiment. It is not an act or an action. It is not an event, or at least not a staged event. Without trying to define it—whatever it may be—it is composed of several elements, each of which is an integral, irreplaceable part of the whole:
1. The message on each sign
2. The meaning(s) of the message:
     a. the meaning(s) intended or anticipated by the creator
     b. the meaning(s) interpreted by perceivers, i.e those who see it or come to know of it
3. The set of all the signs and messages and their interpretations
4. The meaning(s) of the act/experiment/event itself:
     a. my intentions
     b. the interpretations of those intentions and of the act/experiment/event by perceivers
5. The actual act of standing beside the sign for many hours over many days
6. The content and character of the discussions about the signs, their messages and the act/experiment/event itself
7. The memes which arise related to the act/experiment/event and their myriad transformations and knock-on effects on other memes/ideas

Actions in Case of Being Issued an Injunction against Visiting Campus

I was prepared to be asked to leave and be barred from returning to campus after standing with one of the more controversial signs. I had considered making a sign with the words: "I AM NOT RESISTING ARREST" to pull out when the police came up to ask me to leave in order to make them look silly. I hoped that by the time I would have been ejected I would have acquired at least one compatriot who would have been willing to stand by signs I made with an iphone with a Skype connection so that I could sit at home at my computer and continue talking with students without physically being present on campus. That would have permitted me to record all conversations and/or type up a transcript of them as I spoke with people. It would have made posting information on the activity a virtual realtime activity/event. It would have allowed anyone to overhear our conversation wherever they might be.