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Signs and signals

With the primary season in full swing and still more than eight months away from November… I’m already exhausted. Actually, I’ve been exhausted. Every day feels like a hundred.

This post isn’t really about the election, but politics is always personal and local. And so recently I was reminded of a Twitter thread I wrote a few months ago that I thought I’d revisit and share in this space.

For more than three years, we’ve had the sign on the right on our front lawn. (I’ll let you do that math as to when and why the sign went up.) We had a few neighbors who also had them on their lawns. Most came down after a while, but every time I drive by the few neighbors who have kept theirs up, I give them a high five in my head. I see you, good neighbor, and I appreciate you.

Now, I know a sign is just a sign. And I know that a lawn sign, like a bumper sticker, might be more performative than anything, a way to virtue signal your beliefs and morals without actually doing anything.

And yet—as a person of color, as the daughter of immigrants, I appreciate the public display of solidarity. It means something, even if it’s a small thing, a place to start . . .

(Or maybe I’m just desperate for any sign of hope.)

For some added context, it’s important to note that I also have several neighbors who had Trump-Pence signs on their lawns before and well after the 2016 election.

Those eventually came down, too.

But then new ones appeared in their place.

I remember exactly where I was when I saw the “Love Lives Here” sign for the first time. I was driving home from school on my way to pick up my sons at their grandparents’ house. The sign stood exactly where a Trump-Pence sign had been the day before.

At first, I thought, huh, maybe this is a sign of remorse? Maybe even healing? After all, “Love lives here” is a powerful statement.

Curious, I actually drove by the sign again. I slowed down to take a picture because I couldn’t quite read the smaller text underneath.

It’s when I read the smaller text that I realized I’d been wrong. This wasn’t about remorse, or healing.

I don’t know why, but once I saw that sign, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Still can’t. Can’t stop thinking about the rhetoric of these two signs and what distinguishes them from one another.

I might be overanalyzing, overthinking it. But I’m an English teacher, so it’s an occupational hazard.

What’s the difference between these two messages? What does it mean to proclaim, “Hate has no home here” versus “Love lives here”? Which is more inclusive?

I think you could argue there isn’t a difference. Or even that “Love lives here” is the more powerful, more inclusive message. It’s affirmative. After all, what does the Bible say? “The greatest of these is Love…”

But—

It’s NOT just that “love lives here.” It’s a particular kind of love—love of “God, family, friends, country, community, and the U.S. Constitution.”

If “love lives here,” then why all those qualifiers?

This version of love is conditional. I couldn’t help wonder: Whose God? Whose family? Whose friends? Which community?

And while I realize that “hate has no home here” doesn’t mean that love does, I suppose at the very least, it means there’s no room for hate, or prejudice, or bigotry. It sends a message to hate—and those who would hate—you are not welcome here.

I don’t need people to love me. I can’t  expect that. But as a person of color, I just need my neighbors not to hate me.

I also wonder to what extent that these signs are somewhat emblematic of our political and cultural moment right now (and perhaps always).

It’s not that people don’t have love in their hearts, it’s that they’ve reserved their love only for some (like the “U.S. constitution”).

Which reminds me of the idea of empathy hoarding.

As teachers, I think we often believe that if could just help develop more empathy in kids, we’d all be better off.  As an English teacher, I am especially guilty of this. I know firsthand the way that books and stories and poems can be powerful “windows and sliding glass doors” (Bishop, 1990).  The problem with the world, we tell ourselves, are the hate-filled people who can’t empathize with others. That’s not me, we might say to ourselves.

But empathy, like love, has a direction. Many people have plenty of empathy. They just might not extend it to anyone outside their definition of who or what is deserving. (And empathy isn’t enough, either, as my dear friend and fellow educator Aeriale Johnson reminds us.)

When a racist incident happens, for example, with whom do we empathize? Whom do we blame? Who gets the benefit of the doubt? To whom do we show grace and care? Too many times, I’ve seen many empathetic and otherwise loving people show empathy for with those perpetrating harm, more willing to try to understand or explain that harm away:

I didn’t mean it.

That’s not what I meant.

You’re making too big a deal out of this.

I guess these, too, are signs—love lives here, indeed.

Filed under: Blog, Twitter Thread

About the Author

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English teacher. Writer. Reader. Photography hobbyist. Daughter of immigrants. Wife to best friend. Mom to three Jedi-in-training. She/her.

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