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Tigger, Eeyore and Waterboarding in a Bathroom Stall, or Great Moments in Public Signage, Randy Pausch Edition

December 7, 2011

What do Tigger, Eeyore and Waterboarding have to do with one another? Mix them together correctly and you get two things: a razor sharp critique of “the power of positive thinking,” and a brilliant example of satirical public argument…in a bathroom stall.

This week a colleague drew my attention to a piece of bathroom art (or “latrinalia” if you prefer) that he said I shouldn’t miss. It was just where he said it would be, in the last stall on the right. There I was, surrounded by the sounds of flushing toilets experiencing a Great Moment in Public Signage™.

The sticker offers up a simple juxtaposition. Two apparently incompatible ideas are joined together with amusing and/or rhetorical results. The incompatible elements in this case are characters from Winnie the Pooh (referred to in a speech bubble above a soldier) and a step-by-step description of waterboarding, a procedure the Bush administration called “enhanced interrogation” but others have called torture. Two faceless torturers (or enhanced interrogators, if you prefer) jointly subject a bound prisoner to waterboarding while one of them asks, “Are you a Tigger or an Eeyore?”

The Tigger/Eeyore line is undoubtedly a reference to The Last Lecture, a speech and later book by the late Carnegie Mellon professor Randy Pausch about “how to really achieve your childhood dreams.” It became a wildly popular, bestselling example of the American “positive thinking” discourse. This discourse is sometimes called “inspirational” or “self-help” but it usually boils down to the same idea: the biggest thing between you and your dreams (or dream job or dream car) is your bad attitude. If you smile more, people will like you and you will get the things you want, and so on. Here’s the paragraph from Pausch’s book that I’m referring to:

I came to a realization about this very early in my life. As I see it, there’s a decision we all have to make, and it seems perfectly captured in the Winnie-the-Pooh characters created by A. A. Milne. Each of us must decide: Am I a fun-loving Tigger or am I a sad-sack Eeyore? Pick a camp. I think it’s clear where I stand on the great Tigger/Eeyore debate.

At Carnegie Mellon, Pausch is something of a legend. When he died, they held a massive, invitation-only memorial (at which stuffed Tiggers were given away) and they dedicated a fairly stunning pedestrian bridge to his memory. I explain all of this to point out the significance of a Randy Pausch reference on CMU’s campus. Pausch’s messages of perseverance and courage in the face of death have become inextricably tied up with Carnegie Mellon’s identity. His book is one of the first things freshmen read when they arrive on campus.

But Carnegie Mellon’s public image, although as competently and carefully managed as any public image I have ever encountered, has a dark side. CMU has been, rightly or wrongly, associated with government funded weapons research. This is not something you hear much about on campus, and many do not care to think of what they do as “weapons research.” But in any case, it’s fair to say that some of the technologies being developed here, such as unmanned vehicles, have fairly obvious potential military uses.

The bathroom stall sticker is a fascinating piece of rhetoric because it sets two elements of Carnegie Mellon’s institutional identity against one another. It contrasts the popularity of Pausch’s message and the very physical, very real power of our military-industrial complex (represented by our two waterboarders). We are invited to witness two men who see no conflict between asking, “are you a Tigger or an Eeyore?” and torturing a prisoner. We are invited to look at these men and ask, do we see ourselves? Do we see our community? They say that humor is often funny because it points to uncomfortable truths. I laughed when I saw that sticker, and I’ll bet others did too.

If you want to know more:

  • The Last Lecture was inspired by Pausch’s diagnosis with terminal pancreatic cancer. The lecture was delivered here at Carnegie Mellon but soon drew millions of views on YouTube. Pausch became something of an icon (he pokes fun at his own popularity in his book, referring to his “reputation as ‘St. Randy of Pittsburgh’.” There’s something to that. He got a line in Star Trek. And appeared on Oprah. They even put him on a billboard.
  • It should be noted that although my representation of the “positive thinking” discourse is fairly glib, I do not mean to disparage Pausch or the work he did, which was, of course, about much more than positive thinking.
  • I am not the first person to be critical of our collective belief in the apparently metaphysical power of positive thinking. See Barbara Ehrenreich’s 2009 book, Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. I was first exposed to the positive thinking discourse on a notepad my grandmother kept by the phone. It read: “Attitudes are contagious. Is yours worth catching?” I hated that notepad but couldn’t say why. I think I started putting two and two together around the time The Secret came out. I guess that makes me an Eeyore.
  • I’ve been convinced for some time that Americans (not only Americans but especially Americans) appreciate wit in strange places. As evidence, I would like to cite the Internet and our role in pioneering the bumper sticker.
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3 Comments leave one →
  1. December 7, 2011 1:47 pm

    Really fascinating piece of public rhetoric. Although there is nothing wrongly about CMU’s “association” with weapons research. I think there is plenty of evidence to link most of CMU’s work in science and technology as outsourced research for the Air Force. Personally, I had an ex-boyfriend who delivered a multi-million dollar cardboard check printed out at Kinko’s, his former employer, in the name of Boeing. I don’t see how one might fund an expensive program like Robotics without strong involvement of military-industrial complex interests.

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