Amanda Montell:

Since the moment I learned about the concept of the “thought-terminating cliche” I’ve been seeing them everywhere I look: in televised political debates, in flouncily stencilled motivational posters, in the hashtag wisdom that clogs my social media feeds. Coined in 1961 by psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, the phrase describes a catchy platitude aimed at shutting down or bypassing independent thinking and questioning. I first heard about the tactic while researching a book about the language of cult leaders, but these sayings also pervade our everyday conversations: expressions such as “It is what it is”, “Boys will be boys”, “Everything happens for a reason” and “Don’t overthink it” are familiar examples.

From populist politicians to holistic wellness influencers, anyone interested in power is able to weaponise thought-terminating cliches to dismiss followers’ dissent or rationalise flawed arguments. 

This seems exactly right to me. But perhaps it’s worth noting here that two years ago the Chronicle of Higher Education, of all journals, published an essay by Julie Stone Peters, a Professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia, arguing that thought-terminating clichés are super-cool because they are politically effective and because students aren’t smart enough to do any better. No, seriously:

Not all of our students will be original thinkers, nor should they all be. A world of original thinkers, all thinking wholly inimitable thoughts, could never get anything done. For that we need unoriginal thinkers, hordes of them, cloning ideas by the score and broadcasting them to every corner of our virtual world. What better device for idea-cloning than the cliché? 

Note here a doozy of a false dichotomy: either applaud clichés or have a world of people with “whole inimitable thoughts.” Sure, Peters concedes, sometimes academic clichés “may go rogue” and “might explode on you.” But that’s the chance she is willing to take. The alternative — expecting students to think and trying to help them do that better — is so much more unpleasant. I have to give Peters credit for being willing to say the quiet part out loud, because this really is how a lot of professors think. 

This might be a good time to remind y’all that, as William Deresiewicz writes, some interesting groups of people are abandoning universities not because they disdain the humanities and the liberal arts, but because they love them.