© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

Nice label. What else ya got?

I found myself behind a home repairman’s van the other day. I don’t remember the company name, but I remember what was under it: an ichthys, or Jesus fish, followed by a tagline, like so:

The FISH says it all!

It’s not uncommon to see the Jesus fish on business cards, vehicles, signs and shop windows in the South. But this was the first time I’d seen a tagline that so clearly said, “Nuff said.”

A few months ago, I scanned the merchandise table during the break in a freethought meeting I was speaking to. Suddenly the gent selling books and T-shirts felt the call of nature. “Be right back,” he said and headed toward the restroom. Suddenly he stopped in mid-stride and looked back at the mound of cash sitting open on the table. He thought for a moment, then waved his hand dismissively and said aloud, “That’s OK. We’re all humanists here,” before scuttling off toward relief.

I’ll bet the Christian handyman really is a nice guy who never grabs an unattended wallet or has his way with the cat. And I was pretty sure that no one at the humanist meeting would help himself to the open pile of currency, either. But both have more to do with the demonstrable fact that most people, for a number of reasonable reasons, behave morally in most situations. In neither case would my confidence have anything to do with the waving of a worldview flag.

The assumption goes the other way as well, of course, when a worldview (or race, or nationality, etc) is hissed between the teeth as a self-sufficient epithet.

The fish does NOT say it all, and neither does the Happy Human. It’s possible to call yourself a Christian or a secular humanist and to be a breathtakingly unethical pig. Lots of folks on both sides manage that straddle just fine. Maybe it’s a Fred-Phelps-type Christian who finds his instructions in hateful Leviticus instead of the Sermon on the Mount, or a Joe-Stalin-type nonbeliever who seems to take the absence of divine oversight as an invitation to go homicidally nuts.

I’ve also known both believers and nonbelievers who I’d trust with my life. That trust comes not from hearing what a person calls him or herself, but from seeing what the person does with their worldview. Deed, not creed, and all that.

Worldview labels are handy shortcuts, nothing more. They save us the hard work of holding ourselves and others to a discernable standard, as if claiming the label is the same as living the highest ideals of that label.

So next time somebody flashes their worldview at you as if it means something all by its lonesome, yawn and say, “Nice label. What else ya got?”

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This was written on Monday, 27. July 2009 at 15:58 and was filed under Atlanta, belief and believers, critical thinking, diversity, morality, nonbelief and nonbelievers, values. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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  1. Labels, and the stereotypes that go along with them, are of course harmful, but they’ve probably been pretty useful in our evolutionary past. The trick is to use our own metacognitive abilities to rise above our “lowly origin” and evaluate things at face value.

    By the way, I love the site. Keep up the good work!

    Comment: MolecularFossils – 27. July 2009 @ 4:34 pm

  2. Labels, and the stereotypes that go along with them, are of course harmful, but they’ve probably been pretty useful in our evolutionary past.

    No doubt. I once suggested exactly that to a freshman seminar I was teaching — said racism and other “fear-of-the-other” notions are natural but have outlived their usefulness, or words to that effect — and was hoisted by my own petard. Still have a bad petard rash to prove it.

    Comment: Dale – 27. July 2009 @ 4:54 pm

  3. Labels come with being human… they’re the result of what Michael Shermer calls “patternicity” — the tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise (http://www.michaelshermer.com/2008/12/patternicity/).

    We can’t get rid of pattern recognition completely, of course (unlike, say, the appendix), but we need to be more attuned to its fallibility.

    Comment: Theo – 28. July 2009 @ 12:26 am

  4. When “The fish says it all” I wonder what others interpreted the ‘all’ to be?

    I didn’t take it to be saying that he was a reliable, decent human being, like a badge saying “National Guild of Master Home Repairmen” would imply a guarantee of workmanship.

    Maybe it just means his name is Bob… Bob… Bob… Bob…

    Comment: Rob A – 28. July 2009 @ 4:06 am

  5. Ah! Yet again, I’m reminded of something I wrote on my blog awhile back.

    I, too, would not necessarily know how interpret the fish. My tendency is to assume the worst, but there’s my own prejudice coming out… Which, you know, I’m trying to deal with. Or something.

    Comment: smarah – 28. July 2009 @ 9:14 am

  6. @smarah, from your blog:

    “Any problems we are experiencing are your fault, as I’m a Buddhist and therefore simply incapable of acting like a jerk.”

    An absolutely perfect example.

    Comment: Dale – 28. July 2009 @ 9:25 am

  7. But both have more to do with the demonstrable fact that most people, for a number of reasonable reasons, behave morally in most situations.

    (I hope I figured out the right way to quote.) In “Stumbling on Happiness”, Daniel Gilbert says that people are likely to behave morally when they know they’re being watched or feel like they’re being watched, but if they think they’re alone it’s a different story. He probably references a study to back it up; there are a million footnotes in that book. (And this is from memory, so I’m probably wrong.)

    Comment: Karen – 28. July 2009 @ 2:34 pm

  8. I’m sure you’re right, Karen. The consensus of a number of studies is that we are indeed more likely to behave well if we think we are being watched, but a full reporting seems to be as follows…

    We are more likely to behave well when:

    – we are being watched;
    – we think we are being watched;
    – it is conceivable that we are being watched;
    – we think there is a risk of being found out;
    – we empathize with our potential victim;
    – we derive a large part of our self-image from moral behavior;
    – the consequence/punishment is severe;
    – we stand to gain too little and/or lose too much from a bad act;
    – we have a history of consequence/punishment for similar acts;
    – etc.

    …which adds up to most people behaving morally in most situations.

    Comment: Dale – 28. July 2009 @ 2:56 pm

  9. What’s wrong with doing the right thing because it’s the right thing to do?

    Comment: codysmom – 28. July 2009 @ 6:50 pm

  10. What’s wrong with doing the right thing because it’s the right thing to do?

    Not a thing, of course. This is a common question. There’s this feeling that unless we’re acting from utterly untraceable motives, it doesn’t “count” as goodness.

    But there’s nothing wrong with recognizing (as ethics researchers do) that empathy for another and our self-image as moral people are among the conditions that lead us to do the thing we know is right.

    The proof is in the flip side. Most people who do the wrong thing knew perfectly well what the right thing was. So why did they do the wrong thing anyway? Reverse the list above.

    Comment: Dale – 28. July 2009 @ 7:24 pm

  11. Is the issue here that this symbol/statement was on a commercial vehicle?

    I choose to display a “Jesus Fish” on the back side of my ride, not as a public statement of my morality or ethics, but rather in honor of my relationship with my Creator and Savior — a relationship that I am not ashamed of.

    Doing so is no less an expression of self than any other emblem, sticker, plate frame or “bumper balls” seen on our roads.

    Comment: jbishop – 28. July 2009 @ 8:34 pm

  12. What _did_ the fish say, really, in the case of the handyman? When I see the Jesus fish displayed in an advertisement for a secular business (the florist down the block from my old apartment, and an ice-cream place on a university campus, among others), I’m honestly never sure what message they want to be sending, or how I should respond.

    With 70% of the US identifying as Christian, the odds already are in favor of their being Christian (kosher delis aside). So by putting the Jesus fish in an advertisement, they clearly want their customer base to know for certain that the owners are Christian. Are they specifically soliciting customers who would discriminate against non-Christian-owned businesses? Are they signaling that they do not want non-Christian customers or employees? Are they trying to assure potential customers that because they’re Christians, they’re conducting their business in an ethical manner, or that their products are better?

    Comment: Mercredi – 28. July 2009 @ 10:08 pm

  13. @jbishop: The post is (clearly?) not about the fish, but about the tagline — the claim that the fish says it all. I am taking issue not with worldview identity, but with the implication that once I’ve identified myself as x, nothing further needs to be said about my character or ethics. I have neither said nor implied that anyone should be “ashamed of” displaying their worldview.

    @Mercredi: Option C. The apparent intention is to assure potential customers that the businessperson is ethical. I don’t believe the intention is at all nefarious or discriminatory — just that it, like most shorthands, only speaks to those within its own circle.

    Comment: Dale – 29. July 2009 @ 7:19 am

  14. @Dale: Understand the connection to the tagline — you were clear. What I meant to initiate is the idea that it’s not clear that the truck owner made himself clear on what exactly the fish “says” … he could be asserting his business ethics, an interpretation that most here seem to have grabbed / a discussion angle brought out by the original post. Please forgive, then, if my redirection to alternate motives from my personal POV is a non sequiter).

    To misquote the Bible, but as for me and my car … we will serve the Lord … : )

    Comment: jbishop – 29. July 2009 @ 3:59 pm

  15. @Mercredi: Here’s where I may argue with myself, and join the dominant fray here … In personal use, I believe that Christ-followers ought to be more present / visible with their faith … and not just via articles of culture such as Jesus Fish and WWJD bracelets, but in their behaviors and genuine love for others. But I am suspect of the motives of business owners who incorporate religious symbolism into their marketing plans.

    As a parallel, I have spent some time in the military and have seen plenty of advertisements in newspapers local to military installations that highlight the proprietor’s retired-military rank/status. I have also experienced fraud, deception, and other poor business practices from these folks.

    Are these different things?

    Comment: jbishop – 29. July 2009 @ 4:04 pm

  16. I think the parallel is a perfect one. In both cases, the displayer is counting on the automatic assumption that s/he represents the best qualities of that association — no need for further demonstration. Hiding behind such associations can make a person ethically flabby.

    I am in complete agreement with your first para as well. Deed as a testament to creed is appropriate and good. To continue the metaphor, the effort of all that constant good action keeps us ethically toned.

    Comment: Dale – 29. July 2009 @ 4:17 pm

  17. An evangelical Christian acquaintance once told me that other things being equal, he stays away from businesses that advertise with the Jesus fish. He said that wearing your faith on your sleeve for business purposes suggests that neither your faith nor business practices are fully trustworthy.

    Comment: Jeffrey Goldberg – 04. August 2009 @ 4:33 pm

  18. I’d say that the same thing is true of wearing the American flag on your lapel. It’s how we behave, not what we say we believe, that’s important (IMHO).

    Comment: codysmom – 06. August 2009 @ 7:19 am

  19. I’d say that the same thing is true of wearing the American flag on your lapel. It’s how we behave, not what we say we believe, that’s important (IMHO).

    A **PERFECT** example. There’s nothing wrong with wearing the pin, but it says much less by itself than the wearer usually thinks.

    I’d like to see people proudly wearing a quiz about the Bill of Rights with their grade on top. Now THAT would tell you something worth knowing.

    Comment: Dale – 06. August 2009 @ 9:01 am

  20. I’ll bet most people don’t even know how many Supreme Court Justices there are, among other basic facts.

    Comment: codysmom – 06. August 2009 @ 11:06 am

  21. “we derive a large part of our self-image from moral behavior”
    “next time somebody flashes their worldview at you as if it means something all by its lonesome, yawn and say, “Nice label. What else ya got?””

    Perhaps a label associated w/ ‘morality’ can prime a self-image that leads to ‘moral’ action. If you’re a self-identified humanist at a humanist meeting, you’re primed to act like a humanist; so you’ll probably be less likely to steal money even if you know you wouldn’t get caught. Of course, diff labels are associated w/ diff notions of morality. If you self-identify as a rational-egoist/Objectivist, you might be more likely to steal the money. That’s why I don’t trust ppl when they’re primed w/ self-identities that are associated w/ notions of morality that I don’t agree w/. Similarly, many ppl don’t trust self-identified atheists b/c they think atheists don’t have a ‘moral’ self-image or “moral values.” (I’m an atheist, btw. I think the key to ending discrimination against atheists is showing that we’re not immoral or amoral like ppl think we are.)

    Comment: Nala Lina – 06. August 2009 @ 6:22 pm

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