Thought-terminating cliché

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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.[1][2][3][4][5] 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.[6] Its only function is to stop an argument from proceeding further, in other words "end the debate with a cliché... not a point."[2] 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".[1]

Origin and definitions[edit]

R. J. Lifton's definition
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. They become the start and finish of any ideological analysis.

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.[1] 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.[1][7][8]

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.[7] 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."[6]

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'.[9]

Exception of the criteria[edit]

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.[6]

General examples[edit]

  • "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.[10]
  • "It is what it is." – Adds no value to any debate; it intends to disengage. "Why is it so?"[2]
  • "Lies of the devil." – Used as a response to any fact that threatens the integrity of an individual/group.[11]
  • "Stop thinking so much." – Redirects attention from the topic, idea, or argument at hand to the alleged overuse of thought itself.[12]
  • "It's all good." – Nullifies, without evidence, any possible debate by asserting the issue is already settled.[13]
  • "Here we go again." – Implies that the redundant, cyclical nature of a given disagreement means it will never be resolved.[14]
  • "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.[15]
  • "Now is not the time." – Used to indefinitely postpone discussion instead of directly stating that the subject should not be discussed.[16][17]
  • "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.[4]

Criticism of use[edit]


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.[18] 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.[19]

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."[20] 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".[21]

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."[7] 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.[12] 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".[22][23] 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."[24]


The use of slogans is often considered to be a form of the cliché: "Brief, reductive labels you can stick on things, and which end thought on the subject".[24]

Art and media[edit]

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.[25]

Fictional applications[edit]

  • 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".[8][18]
  • 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."[18]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Lifton, Robert J. (1989) [1961]. "Chapter 16, The Older Generation: Robert Chao". Thought reform and the psychology of totalism: A study of brainwashing in China (reprint ed.). UNC Press. p. 429. ISBN 9780807842539 – via Google Books.
  2. ^ a b c Gabbert, Elisa (4 April 2013). "Don't Read the Comments: 10 Logical Fallacies in the Comment Stream". Business 2 Community. Retrieved 2019-05-09.
  3. ^ Jenicek, Milos (2011). Medical error and harm: understanding, prevention, and control. New York: Productivity Press/CRC Press. ISBN 9781439836958. OCLC 680038936.
  4. ^ a b Chiras, Daniel D. (1992), "Teaching Critical Thinking Skills in the Biology & Environmental Science Classrooms", The American Biology Teacher, 54 (8): 464–468, doi:10.2307/4449551, JSTOR 4449551
  5. ^ Yudkowsky, Eliezer (24 August 2007). "Semantic Stopsigns". Less Wrong. Retrieved 26 August 2018.
  6. ^ a b c Bennett, Bo (2017). Logically Fallacious: The Ultimate Collection of Over 300 Logical Fallacies. ISBN 978-1456607371 – via Google Books.
  7. ^ a b c Bufe, Charles (1 December 1997) [1991]. "Chapter 9: Is AA a Cult?". Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure? (2nd, revised ed.). See Sharp Press. ISBN 1884365752 – via Google Books.
  8. ^ a b Taylor, Kathleen (27 July 2006) [2004]. "The birth of a word". Brainwashing: The Science of Thought Control (illustrated, reprint ed.). OUP Oxford. pp. 17, 21. ISBN 0199204780 – via Google Books.
  9. ^ Law Center, University of Southern California (1978). "Southern California Law Review, Volume 51, 1977–78". Southern California Law Review. 51: 68 – via HeinOnline.
  10. ^ link, Get; Facebook; Twitter; Pinterest; Email; Apps, Other. "Thought-terminating clichés". Retrieved 2020-10-14.
  11. ^ Martin, Paul (1993). Cult proofing your kids. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Pub. House. ISBN 0310537614. OCLC 26973667.
  12. ^ a b Morisy, Ann (2009). Bothered and bewildered: enacting hope in troubled times. London: Continuum. ISBN 9781441163929. OCLC 680017855.
  13. ^ Gwazi, Dinfa (2017-05-20). "The Rise of The Thought Terminating Cliche & Bumper Sticker Logic in The Era of Trump". Medium. Retrieved 2019-05-10.
  14. ^ Clampitt, Phillip G.; Williams, M. Lee (Winter 2007), "Decision Downloading", MIT Sloan Management Review, vol. 48 no. 2, retrieved October 25, 2016
  15. ^ Norquist, Richard (July 13, 2018). "Complex Question Fallacy". ThoughtCo. Retrieved 2019-07-20.
  16. ^ Bowden, John (February 15, 2018). "Chuck Todd: 'I'm obsessed' with politicians saying 'now is not the time' to discuss gun violence". TheHill.
  17. ^ Malik, Nesrine (Apr 27, 2020). "If 'now is not the time' to commit to a coronavirus inquiry, then when?". Retrieved 2021-02-18.
  18. ^ a b c Soni, I. M. (August 2017). "Cliches are like base coins". Alive. p. 88.
  19. ^ Esomba, Steve N. (2013). Advertising and the Spread of Business, Democracy and Knowledge. p. 41. ISBN 9781471745010.
  20. ^ Volodzko, David. "China's Biggest Taboos: The Three Ts". The Diplomat. Retrieved 2019-05-09.
  21. ^ Zachariah, Lee (2015-11-10). "Christmas Island and the Language of Death". Vice. Retrieved 2019-05-10.
  22. ^ Peterson, Britt (March 19, 2015), "Scientology's enturbulating lingo", Boston Globe, retrieved October 25, 2016
  23. ^ Sanders, Ash (2019-06-24). "Children of Scientology: Life After Growing Up in an Alleged Cult". Rolling Stone. Retrieved 2019-08-07.
  24. ^ a b Scaramanga, Jonny (2016-01-12). "What does brainwashing do?". Leaving Fundamentalism. Retrieved 2019-05-10.
  25. ^ Cross, Katherine. "So, you want to talk about porn on Steam". Gamasutra. Retrieved 2019-05-09.