Sep 1, 2012

Why I Hate "Keep Calm and Carry On" Signs

This is a rant that has been bubbling in my subconscious for a while. I've gotten angry at "Keep Calm and Carry On" signs and complained about it to friends before, but was never quite able to make myself intelligible enough to make a point. So I thought it was time to explain this, because these signs are everywhere and don't seem to be going out of style anytime soon. I see them on posters, address books, bookmarks, mugs, journals, and whatever other attractive accessories can fit charmingly cherry-red in the palm of your hand. People are clearly consuming this and clearly resonating with the style of it, like they did with LiveStrong wristbands nearly a decade ago (but without the added moral salve of a charity contribution).

Clearly this "Keep Calm and Carry On" sign is a symbol that still has major currency in modern culture. But it's a logo with a message that is not just stylish and easily digestible, but also something evil out of 1984 or Hitler's Germany. The poster was originally created as war propaganda in the United Kingdom in 1939, right before WWII. The posters were never actually put up, because they were made in anticipation of a German invasion (which never came). But the aim of the message was to placate the British public, to reassure them that the government would take care of everything, no need to panic or dwell too much on what is going on.

And now people in America seem to have assimilated this poster into their arsenal of mass-marketed, saccharine inspirational messages. "Keep Calm and Carry On" has been widely and lazily interpreted as a reassuring message of self-empowerment, hope, or whatever other meaning you want to tack onto it (a handy credibility-dodging technique used by horoscopes and phony palm readers). It has become a style without substance and a symbol without meaning.

This is a very scary idea to me -- symbols only exist because of their inherent meaning. Divorce a symbol from its concept and connotations, and it will lose its power. And surely there can't just be a mass epidemic of appreciation for white lettering set against a vibrant red background, so the connotations must still be alive somehow. It's strange that no one has pointed out the meaning behind this sign, and yet people are so willing to swallow it down and use it for their daily life.

Jung was right, X amount of decades ago, but no one apparently listened well enough -- if we, as modern humans, continue to move away from the meaning behind our symbols and the connotations they have (in an effort to have rational, logical dominion over our reality), we will sever connection with a very innate and essential aspect of our humanity. The "Keep Calm and Carry On" sign is a cultural symbol rather than one of the natural symbols that Jung based much of his theory on, but he still addresses its import in his seminal final work, Man and His Symbols (1964): "The interpretation of dreams and symbols demands intelligence. It cannot be turned into a mechanical system and then crammed into unimaginative brains."

So this means no more dream dictionaries, and no more hollow symbols smacking of fascism. If I had my way; which, as many people who publish rants of opinion on the Internet will know well, is probably not going to happen.

I really need to get one of these and start spreading my opinions in the flesh:


  1. Really? No comments?
    I have seen these, too, mostly bastardizes versions having to do with fitness or running (keep calm and burpees on or keep calm and fartlek, etc.), but did not know the origin.
    Now I do. Odd. I like your take on this. Thanks for ranting!

  2. I hate Keep Calm and Carry On, and I'm in the UK. You see this stupid phrase everywhere here. Just need to correct you on one thing.

    You say "they were put up all around the country". This seems to be the common belief, but none of these posters were ever put up... they were printed and stored away, only to be used in case of a German invasion (which never came). Then they were almost all pulped at the end of the war, only a handful survived... sadly.

    1. Thanks for that! I'll fix it right now (also, reading back through, that Chairman Mao comparison is a little bit obnoxious -- probably good that that's getting cut anyway).

  3. Well said, thanks for your rent and letting us in the know.

  4. I hate these too! All of their variations as well. I see them a lot on t-shirt stores online, but fortunately not in-person where I'm at. I'm starting a campaign of walking up to people with these on, and telling them I hate their shirt. You should do the same.

  5. A year later and moronic twits still think it is creative, clever or funny to churn out pointless Keep Calm slogans. KEEP CALM AND STOP!


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  7. The one at my work is the worst: Keep Calm & Dial On. No! To me this slogan is dehumanizing and ignorant of natural reactions and emotions to situations. LET EMOTIONS RUN WILD!