Normative Signs: The Poetry of "Ought"

In which the author finds beauty in how people tell other people what to do.

Month: August, 2016

Don’t Feed the Gators

dont_feed_alligators 2This sign is posted by a pond in Florida. A couple of things are interesting about it. First, most will find odd the idea of being tempted to harass a dangerous animal. “Harassing” a gator seems as obviously foolish as poking a lion. (And the word “harass” might itself seem off-base. Doesn’t harassment usually imply some sort of power imbalance in favour of the harasser? Can you harass someone or something that could eat you? Or are you merely antagonizing it? Dunno.)

Second, and more substantially, this is an example of a sign that is incomplete in an important, but perhaps unavoidable, way. The sign says not to feed the gators. But the sign doesn’t say not to feed the fish, which in turn might attract gators. I’m told that when this photo was taken, a father and son were merrily throwing bread to the fish in the pond, not realizing that a) the bread itself might attract the alligators’ attention, and that b) alligators eat fish (among other things), so that if you attract fish you’re pretty likely to thereby attract gators. But then a sign that said, “don’t feed or harass the alligators, or do anything else that is reasonably likely to attract their attention” would probably lose its impact.

Thanks to Rahul Dhanda for the photo.

No Nukes in Church

no_nukesThis sign was posted on a church (obviously) in Buffalo, NY. Not unique, certainly, but interesting. It’s an example of a normative sign that isn’t really a normative sign, at least not in the usual sense. It’s not actually telling anyone what to do. No one is expecting to bring nuclear weapons into a church, ergo no one is being directed not to.

So, the sign is clearly symbolic. It’s a political slogan, masquerading as a normative sign.

Thanks to Ralph Walton for submitting the picture.

Reserved (But No Parking!)

Reserved (no parking)This one was sent to me by a friend of a friend. These signs are posted at an IBM facility in¬†Poughkeepsie, NY. The backstory, apparently, has to do with fire codes (there’s a hydrant nearby) that resulted in the need to designate this area “No Parking,” but apparently no one thought it necessary to remove the RESERVED sign.

Mixed messages? Sure. And another example of my mantra that “every sign — and every regulatory circumstance — has a story.”