A thought-terminating cliché (also known as a semantic stop-sign, a thought-stopper, bumper sticker logic, or cliché thinking) is a form of loaded language, commonly used to quell cognitive dissonance. Depending on context in which a phrase (or cliché) is used, it may actually be valid and not qualify as thought-terminating; it does qualify as such when its application intends to dismiss dissent or justify fallacious logic. Its only function is to stop an argument from proceeding further, in other words "end the debate with a cliché... not a point." The term was popularized by Robert Jay Lifton in his 1961 book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, who called the use of the cliché, along with "loading the language", as "The language of Non-thought".
Origin and definitions
Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, Chapter 16, The Older Generation: Robert Chao (1961)
The earliest recorded definition of the term was published in Robert Jay Lifton's book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism in 1961, wherein he was describing the structure of language used by the Communist Party of China, defining the term as "the start and finish of any ideological analysis". It was listed as the sixth (of eight) totalistic themes. The term is written under the sixth (of eight) criteria for thought reform 'Loading the Language', of which various authors and scholars also consider the term to be a form of loaded language.
Charles "Chaz" Bufe in his book Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure? (1997) broadly put the use of the cliché as "thought-stopping phrases (that) include any use of the language, especially repeated phrases, to ward off forbidden thoughts" in describing his interactions with the Alcoholics Anonymous aid movement. Author, show-host and doctor Robert "Bo" Bennett described the term as a substitute for "a person's actual position or argument with a distorted, exaggerated, or misrepresented version of the position of the argument". in his 2017 book Logically Fallacious, along with a proposed logical form of the cliché; "Person 1 makes claim Y. Claim Y sounds catchy. Therefore, claim Y is true."
The Southern California law review, Volume 51, Part 1 describes the use of such clichés as "to capture the vehicles of thought and communication; 'Doctrine over reality' (which includes the rewriting of history and reinterpretation of one's past)" and as a property of 'ideological totalists'.
Exception of the criteria
Bennett explains that exceptions are made to the use of phrases, that would otherwise be considered thought-terminating if they are used in addition to evidence or strong claims.
- "That's just your opinion." – Implying all opinions are of equal value, suggesting that you shouldn't try to push your "opinion" on other people, but this is false when talking about factual matters.
- "It is what it is." – Adds no value to any debate; it intends to disengage. "Why is it so?"
- "Lies of the devil." – Used as a response to any fact that threatens the integrity of an individual/group.
- "Stop thinking so much." – Redirects attention from the topic, idea, or argument at hand to the alleged overuse of thought itself.
- "It's all good." – Nullifies, without evidence, any possible debate by asserting the issue is already settled.
- "Here we go again." – Implies that the redundant, cyclical nature of a given disagreement means it will never be resolved.
- "You are too negative." or "You can never admit you're wrong." In both of these cases, either one agrees, in which case one is discredited for being too negative or unreliable, or one disagrees, thereby illustrating the very point one is trying to deny. This is a subtle form of a complex question, as the very act of replying assumes an implicit argument.
- "Now is not the time." – Used to indefinitely postpone discussion instead of directly stating that the subject should not be discussed.
- "So what, what effects do my actions have?" – Used to dismiss an individual's involvement in a larger cause on the grounds that one person is too insignificant to ever have a meaningful impact.
Criticism of use
A major criticism made by various journalists is that the use of the cliché tends to halt debate and restrict/censor freedom of speech, and it tends to be synonymous with language that would be utilized by totalitarian states as Lifton originally identified with Communist China. Chancellor Adolf Hitler of Nazi Germany is remarked to have employed such clichés and platitudes to justify his actions prior and during the events of World War II for example. Historical personalities listed to also have used such clichés include Joseph Stalin of Soviet-Russia, Ruhollah Khomeini of the Iranian Revolution, Pol Pot of the former communist country Democratic Kampuchea and Mao Zedong of the Communist Party of China.
David Volodzko in The Diplomat in 2015 characterized China's justification for persecuting Tibetans, Uyghurs, Falun Gong, artists, journalists (including Liu Xiaobo), summed up as "for security reasons" as a thought-terminating cliché, going on to say "that's every bit as vapid as 'God moves in a mysterious way' or 'support our troops'. What it really means is that the Party is more important than the people." In an article in Vice, Lee Zachariah determined the language used by the Australian government in regards to the casualties, including one death, as a result of the Christmas Island detention centre protests, often included terms like "boat people" and "illegals" that referred to the asylum seekers, implying that the act of coming by boat is heinous, whilst "illegals" "says that their very nature is defined by being illegal, despite the fact that seeking asylum is not illegal".
At the best of times, this is a tactic designed to stop us from thinking of them as human beings. At the worst, it is a way of deflecting blame or sympathy for the death of a person by gently suggesting that the victim had it coming.— Lee Zachariah, "Christmas Island and the Language of Death", Vice
An example of the cliché in use provided by Chaz Bufe is "the admonition given to Catholic schoolchildren to recite the Hail Mary or rosary to ward off 'impure thoughts'. The use of repetitive chanting by the Hare Krishnas serves the same thought-stopping purpose." Christian author Ann Morisy criticized the Christian Church for their uses of such clichés coinciding with their doctrines that intentionally reduce the possibility of dialogue, stating that failure to move beyond them risks falling prey "to a new version of gnosticism" along with alienating those not of the faith. Scientology has also been criticized for using protocols, language and lexicons that utilize thought-terminating clichés to condition its members or to reaffirm a confirmation bias, which makes it difficult for members to think "outside the box". The Guardian journalist Jonny Scaramanga mentions that when certain members of Islam label something haram (sinful), that employs the use of the tactic since it states that something is forbidden and "There is no need for any more consideration of whether it is bad."
Art and media
An article published by Gamasutra mentions that, during the debate regarding whether or not pornographic games should be available on the Steam market place, simply calling such games porn is "thought-terminating" as it does not progress debate.
- George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four – The totalitarian state Oceania implements Newspeak, a "pared-down version of English in which 'dangerous' words like 'freedom' no longer exist". Kathleen Taylor suggests in a case study that the words that remain as a result of the diminishing of the English language are ideologically loaded, and are "clear examples of Lifton's thought-terminating clichés".
- Aldous Huxley's Brave New World – The "Utopian" Society uses thought-terminating clichés more conventionally, most notably regarding the drug soma as well as modified versions of real-life platitudes, such as, "A doctor a day keeps the jim-jams away."
- Loaded language
- Godwin's law
- Fighting words
- Language in Thought and Action by S. I. Hayakawa
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