Thought-terminating Cliché

A thought-terminating cliché is a commonly used phrase, sometimes passing as folk wisdom, used to propagate cognitive dissonance (discomfort caused by holding conflicting thoughts). 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.

The term was popularized by American psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton in his 1956 book ‘Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism.’ 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 ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four,’ the fictional constructed language ‘Newspeak’ is designed to reduce language entirely to a set of thought-terminating clichés. In 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.’

Non-political examples include: ‘Everything happens for a reason’; ‘Don’t judge’; ‘Why? Because I said so’ (Bare assertion fallacy); ‘I’m the parent, that’s why’ (Appeal to authority); ‘When you get to be my age you’ll find that’s not true’; ‘You win some, you lose some’; ‘Everyone is entitled to their own opinion.’ (Appeal to ridicule if said sarcastically); ‘It works in theory, but not in practice’ (Base rate fallacy); ‘It’s just common sense’; ‘It makes sense to me, and that’s all that matters’; ‘To each his own’; ‘Life is unfair’; ‘Such is life’; ‘It is what it is’; ‘It was his time’; ‘Whatever’; ‘There you go again’; ‘Whatever will be, will be’; ‘You only live once’; ‘Agree to disagree’; ‘You are not being a ‘team player” (Ignoratio elenchi); ‘Don’t be that guy’; ‘Where there’s smoke there’s fire’ (used to convince others that a person is guilty based on accusation or hearsay and to discourage further examination of evidence); ‘I’m just sayin”; ‘So it goes’; ‘Me thinks thou dost protest too much’; ‘Rules are rules’; and ‘Everything’s relative’; ‘People are going to do what they want.’

Thought-terminating clichés are sometimes used during political discourse to enhance appeal or to shut down debate. In this setting, their usage can usually be classified as a logical fallacy. Political examples include: ‘Opposition at any cost!’ (Bare assertion fallacy); ‘That’s just a (liberal/conservative/libertarian/communitarian/etc.) argument’ (Association fallacy); ‘Socialism or barbarism!’ (False dichotomy); ”Anarchist organizations,’ isn’t that an oxymoron?’ (Equivocation); ‘Love it or leave it’ (False dichotomy); ‘Fascist arguments need no comments’ (Weasel words); ‘You’re either with us, or against us’; ‘Political correctness’; ‘It’s for the good of the public’; and ‘One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.’

Thought-terminating clichés are also present in religious discourse in order to define a clear border between good and evil, holiness and sacrilege, and other polar opposites. These are especially present in religious literature. Religious examples include: ‘The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away’ (Job 1:21); ‘Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!’ (opposing same-sex marriage); ‘That’s not Biblical’; ‘God moves/works in mysterious ways’; ‘God never gives you more suffering than you can bear’; ‘Only God can judge’; and ‘God has a plan.’ The religious or semi-religious ideas of cults, heretics, and infidels are also often used as thought-terminating clichés, e.g. ‘Do not listen to him, he is an infidel’ or ‘That line of thought sounds like a cult’ (both guilt by association fallacies).

The statement, ‘that is a thought-terminating cliché,’ can itself function as a thought-terminating cliché. Once the stator has identified a first statement as a thought-terminating cliché, they may feel absolved of needing to determine whether that first statement is indeed a thought-terminating cliché, or provides useful insight, in the context under discussion.

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