The ‘Thought-Terminating Cliche’


From Chana Messinger to Kate Donovan to Dan Fincke I found a delightful phrase I’d never heard before: thought-terminating cliche. Wikipedia defines it as ” a commonly used phrase, sometimes passing as folk wisdom, used to propogate cognitive dissonance. 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.”

But I think that’s backwards. Such phrases do not propogate or perpetuate cognitive dissonance, they are used to relieve cognitive dissonance. Some examples that I find really tiresome:

“Everything happens for a reason.”
It’s a matter of opinion!”
“Don’t judge.”
“It’s just common sense.”
“I’m just sayin’.”

And perhaps the two that get on my last nerve more than any others: “It is what it is.” I swear, every time someone says that I want to punch them in the throat. And maybe even worse: “We will have to agree to disagree.” This is almost always a bailout, a get-out-of-logic-free card used when one’s arguments have been shredded and there’s nothing left to say.

Comments

  1. shouldbeworking says

    My wife uses some of those cliches. It’s at that time I remember that silence is golden….

  2. DaveL says

    “I’m just saying” is the one the gets to me. I know you’re saying, and I’m rebutting.

  3. zenlike says

    I always hated the “Well, that’s just the exception which proves the rule.”

    No, the exception doesn’t prove the rule, it means the rule is incorrect (or too strict).

  4. matthewhodson says

    It is what it is, it is not what it is not and it is certainly not both what it is and what it is not.

  5. zenlike says

    And don’t get my started on the above mentioned “common sense”. You know what, people suck at “common sense”.

    Or what about Terry Pratchett’s most hated words, the pre-emptive killer-of-discussions “In my humble opinion…”

  6. slc1 says

    “We will have to agree to disagree.” This is almost always a bailout, a get-out-of-logic-free card used when one’s arguments have been shredded and there’s nothing left to say.

    Here, I strongly disagree with Brayton. In a discussion where both sides have stopped listening to each other and are just repeating talking points back and forth, agreeing to disagree, hopefully not disagreeably, is the best way to end the exchange.

  7. slc1 says

    Re common sense

    If common sense were a criterion, quantum mechanics would have been rejected as preposterous long ago.

  8. zippythepinhead says

    WITH ALL DUE RESPECT, Ed, if we can’t agree to disagree, then there’s just no pleasing you.

  9. says

    And maybe even worse: “We will have to agree to disagree.”

    No. “Just Sayin” is the worst. I guess we will just have to agree to disagree on this one.

    Just sayin

  10. valhar2000 says

    This is almost always a bailout, a get-out-of-logic-free card used when one’s arguments have been shredded and there’s nothing left to say.

    That, or a get-out-of-hell-free card when you have shredded their arguments and it makes no difference: you can drop this line, let the kook believe they have won, and escape.

  11. says

    It has become almost reflexive for me to respond to “I’m just saying” with “Rather than thinking?”

    “We will have to agree to disagree” occasionally gets, “As we agree to disagree on your capacity for rational thought?”

  12. rory says

    I like “it is what it is.” It’s sort of a mantra for me: a way of acknowledging that while a situation may be bad (or good), it is nonetheless the situation I have to deal with, and it’s more productive to accept that and move forward than to deny it or refuse to engage with it.

  13. says

    zenlike
    “Well, that’s just the exception which proves the rule.” that’s actually quite an interesting phrase.

    …The phrase ‘the exception proves the rule’—which (as I understand it) is an expression mostly used by people who don’t understand the phrase ‘the exception proves the rule’ when they aren’t quite sure what’s going on, but about which I have heard these three things:

    The first (often said by people who think they understand language and are certain they know what’s going on) is that the phrase uses an older, largely moribund, meaning of the word “proof”, to whit “test” and they point to uses such as ‘the proof of the pudding’ or the British ‘proving flight’ for a test flight or again the expression, so beloved by alcoholics everywhere, ‘proof spirit’ (about which I have also heard a couple of explanations, but about which of course I’d never dream of digressing to discuss—even though one of the explanations does involve, in a rather dramatic way, gunpowder and the other a certain amount of agitation. Though disappointingly that last one only involves the agitation of liquids)

    Then the second thing I’ve heard about rule proving exceptions comes usually from the mouths or pens (or, in the spirit of modernity and accuracy we like to foster on this station, the keyboards) possessed by those of a legal bent and suggests that of course the damn word means proof in the normal, modern way and that therefore what the phrase really means is that if special permission has to be given for something, then the very fact of making that exception proves that there is a rule against whatever it was. To give you an example; if I tell my daughter Rowena that yes, tonight you can watch The Gilmore Girls on television (Yeh! Right! She wishes!!) then because I’m giving her specific permission for that time then it is safe to infer that there is a standing rule in our house that she does not get to watch rubbish. This is a fascinatingly involuted explanation and really socks it to those who think they understand language.

    But, finally, there’s the third thing that I’ve heard about these exception ruled proofs, as you’ve probably already guessed, it’s mostly what is said by most people most of the time and boils down to; whether frankly or no, “My dear I don’t give a damn”
    from http://howlandbolton.com/essays/read_more.php?sid=16

  14. Doubting Thomas says

    We see these on those lighted message signs outside of churches. I often want to stop and confront the preacher to ask did you really think about what you said out there? Example, “If you take god’s gifts for granted, he may just take them away.” I think, well hell, he may anyway. He might get in a pissing contest with Satan and fuck with you just to prove a point like he did with Job. FAIL. You’re not supposed to think about it.

  15. Gvlgeologist, FCD says

    “Just saying” bugs me more than any other. Just about every time I’ve seen it, it’s been by some right-winger, posting some easily refuted crap from Faux Noise, Breitbart, Beck, etc. By posting “Just saying”, they’re abandoning any attempt to put the post into proper context, to defend it, to explain it, or to take any responsibility for it. They’re making the reader take responsibility for figuring out what it means and (almost always) why it’s wrong. It’s the political equivalent of the Gish Gallop – throw enough shit up there, and someone will believe it. And it almost always takes more time to point out why it’s wrong than to put it up in the first place.

    And if you don’t think I’m right, we’ll just have to agree to disagree. But it’s really just common sense.

    Just sayin’.

  16. Gvlgeologist, FCD says

    reverendrodney – “Whatever” does have one concrete meaning – if it’s said by your Significant Other, it means that you’re in deep doodoo.

  17. Sastra says

    “Everybody has a right to their own opinion.”

    I hate that one because it so often needs to be followed up with “…but they don’t have a right to their own facts” and it so seldom is.

    There are of course Thought-Terminating Cliches which are specific to discussions on religion. Some of the top runners imo:

    “You may not believe in God … but He believes in you.”
    “We just have different paradigms/world views, that’s all.”
    “I’ll pray for you.”
    And of course:

    “This is a matter of faith.”

    In fact, I’d say the whole concept of ‘faith’ is probably the embodiment of a Thought-Terminating Cliche. You’ve got to believe because …. well, you’ve got to believe. And now the entire issue is untouchable: reason, evidence, argument don’t matter. Dissent is dismissed and fallacious argument is justified because it’s faith. Calvinball rules.

  18. greg1466 says

    “Everything happens for a reason.”

    I frequently reply to this one with something like ,”I agree that everything happens for a reason, but I don’t agree to pretend we know what that reason is.”

  19. says

    “Everything happens for a reason” is probably the one that gets me the most, as it is the one that is, in my estimation, most likely to crop up unsolicited (as it were). Most of the others crop up in the context of discussion, disagreement, or debate.

    But “everything happens for a reason”, or variants (notions of karma, cosmic justice, and the like) pollutes the public space.

    Of course, it’s annoyingly patronizing and clueless, especially in the face of random misfortune. If some tragedy were to, say, befall my son, and someone came up to me and spouted off this line, or some variant, I might just punch that person in the face.

    (Just sayin’.)

  20. Jordan Genso says

    slc wrote:

    “We will have to agree to disagree.” This is almost always a bailout, a get-out-of-logic-free card used when one’s arguments have been shredded and there’s nothing left to say. [quoting Ed]

    [slc’s response] Here, I strongly disagree with Brayton. In a discussion where both sides have stopped listening to each other and are just repeating talking points back and forth, agreeing to disagree, hopefully not disagreeably, is the best way to end the exchange.

    I agree with both of you :-p

    There are times when “agreeing to disagree” is a very legitimate ending to a debate, when both sides have rational positions and the disagreement is subjective in nature.

    But I despise the way “agreeing to disagree” is now often used by those who have taken a position that is objectively wrong. There is an implied mutual respect in the “agree to disagree” sentiment, as if both sides could be valid, but that mutual respect should not transfer to all disagreements. If one side is arguing the Earth is flat, and the other side is arguing that it is round, the flat-Earthers have their position somewhat legitimized if the round-Earthers “agree to disagree”.

    So if I’m in a debate with someone who simply has a different opinion about where the line should be drawn on some regulation (be it free-speech restrictions, gun restrictions, whatever), I will “agree to disagree” if we’ve each had the chance to make our points, yet the gap between us is still there based on subjective philosophy. But if I’m in a debate with someone and they have adopted an anti-intellectual, flat-Earth-type position that denies objective reality (and sadly, many political disagreements now fall into this category), I will not give them the respect of “agreeing to disagree”.

  21. Scott Hanley says

    My great peeve is “The exception proves the rule” as a dismissal of counterevidence. The speaker usually doesn’t realize that proves means tests in this case and doesn’t want to deal with the fact that their claim just failed the test.

  22. Sastra says

    “Everything happens for a reason.”

    This thought-terminating cliche also qualifies as a “deepity.” Dennett coined the word to refer to those statements which sound very deeep because they can be interpreted two different ways: true but trivial — and extraordinary but false. Play on the resemblance and it’s like you found the magic connection.

    Of course ‘everything happens for a reason.’ You can find a causal chain for every event. That’s true but trivial. Nothing groundbreaking there.

    But that’s not what it means. It implies that there’s always some over-riding moral purpose in every event, that The Universe is trying to guide you along a path like a mother guides a child. It’s not just that you CAN learn or grow after the fact. No, your growth was intended. “Everything happens for a reason” is supposed to translate into “everything happens for the best.” On purpose.

    I resent the way people think this is cheerful and optimistic. “Make lemons out of lemonade” is cheerful and optimistic. “You got lemons because you’re supposed to make lemonade be grateful ” sounds like an abusive relationship.

  23. mudpuddles says

    @ rory, #14

    I agree with that one rory, it actually was really important to me 2 years ago when I was dealing with a mental health issue that progressed into an acute crisis. When I finally got help, the doctor looked me squarely in the eye and said “repeat after me – ‘it is what it is’.” Repeating that phrase to myself at times of severe difficulty helped me deal with a lot of issues – “here is where I am, can’t hide from it, got to deal with it, but stressing won’t change it” Kind of a mantra in that way for me too now.

    I also like “better to have and not need than need and not have” – that really is just good logic for some situations. Like, it might get chilly later, should I bring an extra sweater when I drive out to the lake? Better to have an extra sweater I don’t need, than sit there freezing thinking “why the fuck didn’t you bring that sweater, dumbass?”

  24. rory says

    @ theschwa 16,

    If I’d read Vonnegut at a younger age, I might be saying that now instead of “it is what it is.” Same basic concept for me, though. For fans of the classics I also like “this, too, shall pass.”

  25. slc1 says

    Re Jordan Genso @ #25

    Agreed. I had in mind a discussion I engaged in on Brayton’s previous Scienceblogs blog relative to a discussion of the 2nd Amendment. As I usually do to 2nd Amendment absolutists, I posed the question as to whether the 2nd Amendment precludes the government from outlawing the private ownership of nuclear weapons. The other guy argued that it did. After considerable back and forth, I made the agree to disagree statement as it was obvious that we were just talking past each other and repeating the same talking points over and over to no avail. Even though I think that private ownership of nuclear weapons is a preposterous proposition, the other guy thought otherwise and was not going to give in.

  26. Abby Normal says

    “Everything happens for a reason,” is one I find particularly annoying, followed closely by, “It’s just a theory.”

  27. bobcarroll says

    “What goes around, comes around” Useless and annoying.
    Thanks to richardelguru @15 for his comments on “tests the rule.” Similarly annoying are those who use the morphed phrase, ” The proof is in the pudding,” which i’m hearing on news radio fairly frequently. The result is meaningless gobbledegook.

  28. dingojack says

    Bob – you’ve clearly not been exposed to Dingo’s 180 proof christmas pud. Guaranteed to start a punchup ’round the BBQ (or your money back*).
    Dingo
    ——-
    * terms and conditions apply

  29. maddog1129 says

    I laughed out loud at Rene Descartes in an early chapter of his Discourse on Method, on “common sense”: he wrote something to the effect of, “Common sense must be the thing that exists in the greatest quantity in the whole world, because no one ever wishes for more of it than he (or she-ed.) already has.”

    Cracked me up!

  30. Hercules Grytpype-Thynne says

    Thanks for letting me know about the misspelling of “propagate” in that Wikipedia article. It’s fixed now. Now if only I had edit access to your blog posts . . . .

  31. says

    I’d like to add one to the list that really peeves me. This has come up a couple times from friends in multiple-person discussions when I’m blasting away at religion. They have said to the person with whom I was primarily conversing, “Oh, he’s an atheist.” Those friends didn’t mean any ill intent, but what I fear is that the person I’m trying to persuade may shut off their mind to my argument, essentially committing an ad hominem.

  32. Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :) says

    But I think that’s backwards. Such phrases do not propogate or perpetuate cognitive dissonance, they are used to relieve cognitive dissonance.

    They are used to transfer cognitive dissonance from the speaker to the listener, relieving the former.

  33. kermit. says

    matthewhodson: It is what it is, it is not what it is not and it is certainly not both what it is and what it is not.
    .
    Well, yes and no…
    .
    On another note, there is a class of words and phrases like “socialized medicine” mentioned above, which are place holders for a bundle of poorly-argued claims, leading to a pseudoconclusions, which allows the speaker to dismiss the other’s argument and conclude the increasingly uncomfortable conversation. Or at least change subjects.

  34. =8)-DX says

    How long until the words “thought-terminating cliché” become one?

    “How long until”, ah, another thought-terminating cliché…

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