24 February 2012

Clichés are clichés for a reason - aren't they?

At our previous Grey Matters gathering we played a game of cliché-busters.  It was a great opportunity to expose and even destroy some of those clichés that tend to drive you up the walls.  The following short piece on thought-terminating clichés by our in-house linguist, Erin, made the busting process a whole lot easier:
Robert Jay Lifton was one of first to use the phrase "thought terminating cliché".
In the domain of Language Ecology within Linguistics, the premise is that "utterances must not be deliberately formed in such a way that the cause harm to or decieve others." If an utterance is formed in such a way that it breaks this rule, it is called "language abuse". There are five levels of language on which abuse of this kind can take place: phonological, lexical, semantic, syntactic and pragmatic. The level on which the thought terminating cliché takes place is pragmatic - it feeds off of the social dynamics within society, so to speak.
It seems to be in Lifton's book, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, that the term "thought-terminating cliché" became popularised. A thought-terminating cliché is a commonly used phrase, sometimes passing as folk wisdom, used to quell cognitive dissonance. I think most of us at GM would agree that cognitive dissonance is often the place from which growth takes place. Though the phrase in and of itself may be valid in certain contexts, its application as a means of dismissing dissent or justifying fallacious logic is what makes it thought-terminating. In other words, when such a phrase is used to prevent argumentation, questioning, debate and even discussion of a problematic situation or event, it is said to be thought-terminating. These phrases are used so often and with such ease that they have become accpeted as truthful propositions in and of themselves and therefore cannot be contested.
Lifton said: The most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed. These become the start and finish of any ideological analysis.
Some examples of thought-terminating clichés:
"When you get to be my age..."
"Do what I say and not what I do..."
"One day, you'll understand..."
In spite of having the best intentions of busting every cliché out there, it turned out some of us weren't so sure that we could do without them.  The following quote by George's dad on Dead Like Me expresses something of our hesitance to throw clichés out of the window:
"When you're suffering, truly suffering, it's the cliches that heal you. When I'm sad give me George Jones, or Willie Nelson. That's the brilliance of these sonnets. They state the obvious. Cliches are cliches because they are the things that have stuck to the wall. Our greatest arrogance is to believe that we are all special, because the truth is we are all unbelievably the same."
One thing we all agreed on was that clichés shouldn't be used in thought-terminating ways, and that integrity and sensitivity makes all the difference!

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