Be Yourself – and Other Thought-terminating Clichés

We do many things in our daily lives that are meant well. Sayings and habits that, if challenged, we defend because we did them because we were trying to be nice. Or at least that’s what we tell ourselves.

Retweet or share beautiful images with deep, meaningful messages because maybe it will brighten up someone else’s day and we totally get what they’re saying in that one meme, we saw online today.


What are examples of such platitudes then?

Absence makes the heart grow fonder!

Nobody’s perfect!

All’s fair in love and war!

Better to be hated for who you are than loved for who you are not (Thanks Machiavelli ><)

Good things come to those who wait

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results

What the mind can conceive, it can achieve

Follow your passion!

Turn the other cheek!

Don’t be sad because it’s over, be glad that it happened

It’s the darkest just before dawn

Be careful what you wish for

You can’t go wrong doing right!


Be yourself!

Many of these sayings have slipped over our lips (or typing fingers) and we don’t even notice the use. But say any of these sentences out loud and follow them with “Really?” and see what your brain answers that.

Be yourself? Who the hell else would you be? And exactly what are you signing off on here? Would you tell a school shooter that’s ok to follow your dream and be yourself? Maybe Jeffrey Dahmer was merely following his passions, like that one pretty picture with the dewed rose petal told him?

Or better still, when faced with a tempting aphorism or picture cliché, replace the picture with this:



Nobody’s perfect! But an apple a day…

Did the combination make you blush or throw up a little bit in your mouth, despite being presented by Mr. Mads Gorgeous Mikkelsen? Then maybe it’s best not to post that meme. You deserve better than that and so do your followers.

We often find ourselves using phrases like those and others to add comfort to someone in a situation that has no comfort to be found. It’s something we do in our helplessness. “Oh your cat died? At least it’s always darkest right before dawn.”* What does that even mean? It’s not even remotely true in itself! Furthermore, the secondary reason for using a cliché or aphorism in a situation like that, is to gag the other person. We don’t want to continue this conversation because we can’t do anything about what’s wrong. Please take all that pain you are feeling over there, away from me. Would you like to see a picture of a bunny, instead?

Trusty wikipedia also defines platitudes as thought-terminating clichés:

In his 1961 book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of “Brainwashing” in China psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton introduced the term “thought-terminating cliché”.[15] This refers to a cliché that is a commonly used phrase, or folk wisdom, sometimes used to quell cognitive dissonance. Though the clichéd 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.

Lifton said:

“The language of the totalist environment is characterized by the thought-terminating cliché. 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.”

In George Orwell’s 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, the fictional constructed language Newspeak is designed to entirely eliminate the ability to express unorthodox thoughts. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World society uses thought-terminating clichés in a more conventional manner, most notably in regard to the drug soma as well as modified versions of real-life platitudes, such as “A doctor a day keeps the jim-jams away”.

In her 1963 book Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt described Adolf Eichmann as an intelligent man who used clichés and platitudes to justify his actions and the role he played in the Jewish genocide of World War II. For her, these phrases are symptomatic of an absence of thought. She wrote “When confronted with situations for which such routine procedures did not exist, he [Eichmann] was helpless, and his cliché-ridden language produced on the stand, as it had evidently done in his official life, a kind of macabre comedy. Clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct have the socially recognized function of protecting us against reality, that is, against the claim on our thinking attention that all events and facts make by virtue of their existence.”
Source: Wikipedia

I’m not saying re-posting a horoscope equates someone to the likes of Eichmann. But I am fairly certain if he’d had Twitter during the 1940s he would have scribbled downs some notes from this week’s predictions for Sagittarius or Libras.

Sticky thought, isn’t it? Let’s see an example!

Daily Sagittarius November 22 – December 21

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

This could be a time when everything around you and your living situation seems to be in some sort of confusion. You may feel opposed or even challenged by others. Working through problems acted out with others may be hard to avoid. You could receive unexpected help or support from those around you–especially someone younger. This is a time when you may get insights into your living situation or support system. New ideas about your history, new approaches to established facts. There is a chance to understand those around you and to have a special time with someone you love. General good feelings and a sense of support and harmony makes this a happy time. You will find music quite relaxing this evening.

You will find music quite relaxing this evening.

Michael C. Hall as Dexter Morgan (Season 7, episode 10) - Photo: Randy Tepper/Showtime - Photo ID: dexter_710_0967

You will find music quite relaxing this evening!

Diets and exercise! Outside of politics where else will you see propaganda so little with brainless aphorisms? I mean who wants to fight through all the misinformation and outright lies mass-produced by any Tom, Dick and Harry(hah) who wants to make a buck of desperate people fighting obesity, the most shameful affliction since leprosy, amirite?


Move Forward

Why not instead have a big happy photo of some stick thin woman twenty years younger than yourself with a nice, deep, inspirational sentences to keep you going? Ignore the fact that the food you can afford, which your government endorses with nonsensical but bright and friendly triangles, is causing your weight gain.


Wiley Coyote

What slips out of our mouths can be hard to control (at least for some of us, especially yours truly), but what we post has a longer filter period between “Monkey see, and Monkey re-posts”. I have started to use that period to ask myself if I really am ok with posting that particular bit of ‘wisdom’ and who exactly that might benefit, piss off or hurt.

If you think my Hannibal test has kept my own, personal word litter box free of smelly clichés, I must disappoint you. We, as in anyone who has gone through a formalized school education of any sort, are raised on clichés and aphorisms. And I still want to pelt apples at a doctor, whenever I find myself in the vicinity of both at the same time!

This isn’t a post that will help you change your life!

I just wanted you to know, that even I sometimes can stop and think.


This is Aggie, signing off and wishing that you’ll:



Visit Scott Berkun for another list of unhelpful aphorisms and clichés

*The cats are all fine, that was a made up example!


2 thoughts on “Be Yourself – and Other Thought-terminating Clichés

  1. I enjoyed this piece. It’s a bit different from what I am used to reading on blogs and I respect that. I think that “thought terminating clichés” cut both ways. They are (usually unconsciously) designed to shut up the listener/reader so we don’t have to feel either powerless to help or otherwise uncomfortable (or bored, or whatever.) But they also stifle the speaker/writer because those clichés prevent any further thought beyond the nearly automatic generation of a preprogrammed phrase. No genuine engagement between human beings actually occurs in the transaction but the speaker goes about her business imagining that she’s reached out and been a friend.

    • I agree.
      The hubby calls them action-ending gambits which is a good call for them too I think. They often serve as a full-stop to whatever the conversation is about.
      On the other hand, I don’t really think I can ascribe malice to the majority of their use.
      We as a species are hard programmed to improve “the clan/band/group”. This means fixing whatever’s broken. It’s not just something we want to do, it’s something we need to do.
      Helping a clansmen (which in modern times is a much more diffuse label though very much still in effect) helps your clan, which in turn helps you.
      As always, when we cannot fulfill a programmed need, we turn into social F-ups.
      Which is all fascinating. But that’s all in the verbal situation. My original beef is with inane “inspirational” memes which are anything but. And I think your point is even more well-taken there. Throwing out such a meme gratifies our “I should make improvements’ (better the clan) drive. The image share doesn’t actually do that, but I think your brain tells you it’s put a check mark in the box and rewards you for your diligence. Then you can go about your day happy in the knowledge you improved things.
      This is too interesting. Thanks for the comment, Stardust. You made me think all kinds of things!

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