Every schoolboy knows that good writers seldom use clichés. The word is commonly defined as ‘a word or phrase that is overused, unoriginal or boring’ but it’s important to recognize that, while most writers try their best to be original, fresh and entertaining, if you’re writing to advance a particular idea, or a point of view, and you need to obscure some of the unpalatable consequences of the idea you’re promoting, clichés can be useful. Consider, for example, the idea that ‘you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs’.
Nothing original there, nothing clever. A cliché, if there ever was one. Yet it’s undeniably true. It is, in fact, impossible to make an omelette without breaking eggs and in its obvious truth lies its power.
Say I’m making a speech in defense of Trump’s nomination of veteran spy Gina Haskell to take over the leadership of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). And say some Democratic Party politician speaks out against her appointment on the grounds that she was implicated in the now-discredited-at-least-publicly torture of prisoners at ‘black sites’. I might well answer with a cryptic “you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs”, implying that while Haskell might have done some bad things (breaking some eggs), her intentions were honorable (making an omelette). I’d rely on the vaguely comfortable familiarity that people have with the cliché to allow most people to believe that I had somehow made a convincing argument in her favor.
That’s the power of a cliché. Because we’re used to hearing it, and already accept it as truth, we fail to notice that it’s hardly relevant to the matter under consideration. We swallow the implied argument about the integrity of the nominee and are easily able to invest her candidacy with the truth value of the cliché. But that’s a false equivalence; there’s no moral imperative related to the consumption of eggs. In spite of the views of the ultra-vegetarian minority, most of us happily include omelettes in our diets. Additionally, and most importantly, there’s no law against breaking eggs and no logic decrying the uselessness of egg-breaking.
I’m currently reading an interesting book by Antonio Damasio, The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures. I think that the central idea of the book is that our lives are controlled by our feelings, not by our rational minds; that we make decisions based on how we feel about things and that what we think only comes after we’ve decided what we’re going to do, serving to justify the decisions we’ve already made, for no good reason. If Damasio is correct, this explains why clichés so perfectly conceal false and disingenuous arguments. This type of rhetoric actually appeals to our feelings while appearing to invoke intellectual examination. We’re naturally comfortable with this kind of analysis.
And that’s the other thing that our reliance on clichés does — it immures and forcibly immunizes us against us painful thoughts and, with tragic irony, those feelings that would require us to make difficult decisions and take difficult actions. Again, this is a function of the inherent vagueness of the cliché. I mean, really, what does every schoolboy (or schoolgirl?) know?
Perhaps that school shootings have themselves become cliché?
And ever since the Parkland Shootings became the terrible thing that happened yesterday, I’ve been bothered by my own numbness to the horror of the business. A nineteen year old, driven insane by the circumstances of his life, armed himself with weapons of war and murdered people. Lots of people. Children, lots of children. I heard a father of one of the murdered children tearfully demand that I, and all the people like me who are finding it difficult to understand what he was experiencing, take the time to make ourselves feel and understand what parents like him are facing.
And he went on to suggest that once we manage that difficult task, he had another for us. He wanted us to do something, something more than offering our prayers and sympathy.
God help us if we don’t.