Imagine you’re walking down a street somewhere. It’s an unfamiliar area and you don’t know who lives there. But while walking, you happen to pass a car, and on the car is a bumper sticker supporting a controversial cause that you also support.
If you are like most people, this bumper sticker probably makes you feel good. It makes you feel as if you are a little less alone, that there’s at least one other person who cares about the things you do. Or maybe not exactly the same, but close enough that your values and interests are made to seem more normal and popular.
What is happening in this hypothetical encounter is called “boosting morale.” Specifically, your morale is being boosted by a passive signal in your environment (a bumper sticker).
Morale isn’t just good feelings. It has all kinds of physiological, sociological, and political ramifications. Much of political campaigning is about boosting the morale of your side (rallying or “energizing” the voters) and diminishing the morale of the other side. Low morale is stressful, with all of the physical connotations that stress can entail. It saps energy and motivation, putting people into a reactive mindset. Actually, we can think of it as a “loser’s mindset,” since low morale is what we experience when we anticipate losing. And this mindset often causes loss as well, since the demoralized person is no longer focused on winning. Instead, they are focused on minimizing injury in their imminent loss.
Set on this standard, a bumper-sticker clearly won’t be the difference between total demoralization and peak-positive competitive energy. It’s more akin to a granola bar. By itself, it won’t be the difference between obesity and starvation. But add five granola bars to your diet every day, and it will eventually add up. Same principle in subtraction.
When we look at things like bumper stickers, and observe the effect they have, what we begin to see is that morale can be thought of as a kind of commons.
A commons is a resource that is available to all members of a society and not owned by any one person. Air is one example of a commons, as are the English language and National Parks. Commons come in all different forms, but what makes commons challenging to maintain for long periods is the problem often known as “the Tragedy of the Commons,” which can basically be summed up in one word: freeloaders. Commons can be depleted, and individuals who do not appreciate the value of sustaining the commons can take more than their share, or take without giving anything back, thus leading to the destruction of the commons over the long run.
If we think about putting a controversial bumper sticker on a vehicle, there is clearly a downside. Basics like cost and removal aside, controversial bumper stickers can offend people, and can even attract vandalous attention to your vehicle. People might key your panels or slash your tires, or worse.
What’s the upside? Why would anyone put a bumper-sticker on their vehicle? Are they simply stupid?
Perhaps to ask that question is to ask why any intelligent farmer wouldn’t overgraze his cattle in a common grazing area.
Maybe the person who puts a bumper sticker on their vehicle — however tasteless, crass, or ugly it may be in execution — is motivated by an intuitive understanding of the value of paying back into the morale commons.
It’s important not to get too caught up in the bumper-sticker illustration. There are countless ways of paying into the morale commons besides defacing your own vehicle. There are also probably many people who don’t even get that morale-boost from seeing an affirming bumper-sticker… but this doesn’t mean that they are unaffected by morale, or that their morale isn’t affected by external signals and triggers in the public space. The point of talking about bumper-stickers is to illustrate the commons-like nature of morale, how our individual state of mind is affected by these sorts of signals. And if this is the case — that morale can be thought of as a commons — than certain duties follow; namely, that we not free-load, taking from others without giving back. If you get get pleasure and energy from seeing Trump or Biden bumper stickers, then perhaps you should consider paying that feeling forward to others, while also sharing (and thereby thinning) whatever risk that might also entail.
And perhaps it might also follow that if one is inclined to criticize one’s own side — which is necessary from time to time — then one might have an extra obligation to counteract the demoralizing effect which that criticism is likely to have.