That’s Life The quiet tyranny of clichés.

That’s Life The quiet tyranny of clichés.

Issue 47

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Arts & Culture

  • Words Precious Adesina
  • Photograph Romain Laurent

In the toughest of times or during the most difficult conversations, the impulse is often to search for convenient expressions that make a situation feel more manageable. “It is what it is!” “It could be worse!” “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t!” 

These seemingly uplifting platitudes—which can bring even the most heated discussion to a dead stop—are called “thought-terminating clichés.” The term was popularized in 1961 by American psychiatrist and author Robert Jay Lifton. In Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, Lifton wrote that, with thought-terminating clichés, “The most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases.” 

These apparently positive expressions can make com...

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