I hear them all the time. It’s my belief that we should examine the things we tell others and ourselves. Maybe they just don’t make any sense. Many are mindless, some are untrue, and most emanate from the tendency to believe that a clever-sounding slogan acquires truth.
My abhorrence of these had its genesis when I was about eleven, watching All in the Family with what passed for a family. That show was one of the best sitcoms of my lifetime, because it combined some drama with good comedy and powerful social comment. Since some of my audience is younger, I should take a moment to explain. The stars were Carroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton, who played a row-house Depression-kids-era working-class couple with heavy accents in an eastern city, maybe in New Jersey. Archie Bunker was a pudgy working-class xenophobe. Edith was the matron of the era, self-sacrificing, trying to please everyone, pretending less than her full intellect. Their daughter, a standard issue baby boomer, was married to a guy with longer hair who didn’t get along with Archie on politics, social issues, or much of anything. Their debates and arguments were those of the day.
At one point, Mike (the son-in-law, played by Rob Reiner) was talking about a commune. “People who live in comm-unes are comm-u-nists,” snarked Archie. In those days, calling someone a communist was like calling him a terrorist today: it was the demon word, the thing we are all programmed to hate and fear. And my father said: “I guess that’s right.”
It wasn’t until college, a decade later, when I came to realize what a stupid statement that was. A commune is a group of people living together, pooling their efforts and resources. A communist is someone who believes in the abolition of personal property and the striving toward a utopian state where all wealth is shared. If used to define people who live in communes, it loses that automatic meaning unless the individual in question advocates actual communist change in society.
To understand the prevailing social hatred of the day, understand that my debating the point in such a fashion would have been tantamount to failure to confirm the demonization of communism, which in turn would make me suspect as a communist sympathizer or ‘com-symp.’ In the 1950s, that could get one an FBI file. It went so deep that in 1990, when the Warsaw Pact collapsed and the Cold War was over, our leaders had a temporary quandary: whom do we tell the people to hate and fear? Since most of those leaders weren’t bright enough to adjust, and intuitively knowing that we were (and remain) a people who must have an exterior enemy to distract us from our own leadership’s greed and evil, they just kept doing them. They picked on Russia, spiking the political ball in eastern Europe, helping create the climate in which a dictator like Putin would arise. Only 9/11 rescued them from the dilemma: at last, a suitable hate target to hand the people.
The day will come when the millennials have children, who will have no more memory of 9/11 than I had of Khrushchyov’s “We will bury you” shoe-pounding moment, and their kids will not understand why they are required to hate and fear all Muslims and Arabs but especially Muslim Arabs, and the divide of unshared experience will repeat itself in different form.
Archie’s statement was just a dogmatic snark, but it was a snark that sounded good enough for even someone as well educated as my father to swallow. Dad surely had no idea in the moment that he had planted a key seed of dormant discontent, one which would destroy his intellectual credibility with me. Once I began to deprogram myself from the obligatory religious and social beliefs repeated at me over and over growing up, I would question everything he had tried to ingrain in me, with the tendency to believe his views tainted by association with a tainted source. I would reject his religion, his bigotries, even his notions of love and family (which amounted to “Family is abusive, that’s just how family love is”). And for all my days, religious missionaries trying to lecture me about Christianity would have no idea what a hornets’ nest they were breaking, as they tried to promote a belief system that I had experienced as a blunt instrument of conformity and abuse.
Albeit lengthy, that explains why I despise stupid statements that people repeat without thinking. I associate sloganeering with cheap mind control, oppression, anti-intellectualism, and most of what I loathe about humanity in mass. Over the course of many months, I began to collect stupid statements and debunk their stupidity. When I had enough, it was time to publish this piece. Therefore:
“If you don’t exercise your rights, you’ll lose them.” Evidently untrue, considering the many rights many people do not exercise, but do not seem to lose. A more sensible thought: if you abuse your rights, you might lose them, so exercise them with some sense.
“You can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your family.” Oh, yes, you can. Some family members need to be fired: to wit, anyone who considers the familial relationship a reason to be pardoned egregious wrongdoings.
“Tastes like chicken.” Why do people blurt this about any new form of meat, and think that it’s high comedy? Some things taste like chicken. Some don’t.
“It never hurts to negotiate.” Oh, yes, it can. If it’s already a good deal, and you’re just beating the seller up for more money, especially if the amount is piddly, he or she may just tell you it’s no longer for sale to you, period.
“If you don’t like the weather around here, wait [insert length of time], and it’ll change.” People blurt this even where the weather is so predictable that it is the preferred destination for meteorologists who flunked out of college. I used to live in such a place. They blurted it all the time. They were the same people who said that everything tasted like chicken.
“If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” This is not always bad advice, but it’s terrible advice when the circumstances merit saying something that is not nice. For example, someone is being a jerk and needs to be called out. This is one of those platitudes often mouthed by people who think it’s more important to be nice to the bully than to the victim. When it is applied to situations where confrontation cannot help anyone, of course, it makes perfect sense: while in fact your child’s picture is deeply crappy, it will not help anyone for me to say so, thus I will shush and just say that she must have worked hard on it, even though I know that is probably not true.
“Hate only hurts you.” Not necessarily true. Anger, while it has its place, does take its toll. It should be rationed, applied only where it will do some good. Hate, on the other hand, I consider essential to an ethical outlook. There is a lot of evil out there. Loving evil does not cause it to stop being evil. If someone can’t hate evil, I’m not sure s/he and I can ever understand one another, because I do not see how one can have a functional moral compass without the extremes of judgment. We may not concur on the definition of evil, but surely we each must have one. The trick is to consider hate a judgment, a status, a consignment–something that just is, rather than something dwelt upon. The Ku Klux Klan, for example, needs and deserves to be hated. Hating them doesn’t hurt me a bit. If I ever stopped properly hating them, though, I’d hurt myself plenty, because I would compromise what matters to me. Frank Herbert said: “What do you despise? By this you are truly known.” Dune is one of the great marriages of subversive social comment with science fiction.
“If you don’t vote, you can’t complain.” Declining to participate in or validate a process is irrelevant to one’s right to speak one’s mind. One may say that one will not validate the opinion of a non-voter who complains, but not everyone wants or needs (or even values) such validation. Anyone wanting to tell me I can’t complain should first step up and offer to pay my tax bill.
“Everyone has a story to tell.” Nah. Take it from someone in the business of trying to fix stories: not everyone’s story is interesting or should be told. Some are, some are not. Writing and storytelling are different arts, and storytelling is the more difficult in my opinion. I’d rather review a ms written in atrocious English (which I can fix), that tells a great story, than an impeccably written but soul-numbing tale.
“Who are we to judge others?” I don’t think even the speaker ever believes that. Whether you buy into our social model (in which case you validate the right of judges and juries to judge), or you simply have a functional moral code (in which case you feel you have every right to make judgments as you see fit), you do believe someone has the right to judge, be it you or somebody else.
“Profanity is a sign of limited vocabulary.” Really? I have been accused of many things in life, sometimes with cause, but never yet a limited vocabulary. I swear now and then. It says nothing about my vocabulary and everything about how I feel right then, what I seek to convey. In any case, just because one has a substantial vocabulary does not mean one must show it off at every opportunity. To let vocabulary hinder communication is to miss the entire point of language. You’d think that those asserting expertise in this area would realize this.
“All children are precious.” No, they are not. There are children who are downright evil, just as there are adults who are downright evil. Not all of either will permit themselves to be salvaged, or have the capacity to permit it. That doesn’t mean we should be too quick to throw in the towel, but the statement itself is demonstrably false.
“Names can never hurt you.” This lie is fed to nearly every bullied child in this country, over and over. Names can only not hurt someone who is completely sociopathic, immune to all desire for peer respect. Tell someone that names can never hurt him or her, and you may get that exact outcome: a person who simply does not care how anyone else feels. As I remember it, those saying this are generally trying to persuade a victim to just suffer abuse rather than fight back. They are the enablers of abuse. The enablement of abuse, the siding with the harmful over the harmed, is morally bankrupt. And whether we admit it or not, siding with the bully is one of our cultural ethics.
Godwin’s Law. (For those unfamiliar with it, this arose in reaction to the tempting tendency to compare anything to Hitler or the Nazis. It states that whoever does so concedes the argument.) Its threat does restrain some of the more mindless and extreme comparisons, and it does serve a useful purpose in discouraging trivialization of the Holocaust. That acknowledged, in fact our observation of the rise of Nazi power is too valuable and pertinent to disallow as an analogical tool. If someone is twisting reality and manipulating simple people through hammering away at the same semi-truths and outright lies, that is exactly how Joseph Goebbels manipulated German public opinion. It is just fine to call that ‘Goebbelsian,’ for example.
“Everyone deserves [insert benefit or right].” Very few people believe this when they articulate it, no matter what the deserved item or condition or benefit may be. What most mean, but refuse to admit to themselves: “Everyone, except for a few people I happen to consider exceptionally heinous, deserves […].” As I see it, there are plenty of people who do not deserve certain things. Not every kid deserves a trophy. Not every kid deserves to graduate. Not every adult deserves a decent job. Not every [insert member of deified profession] is a hero. Do you think everyone deserves a decent meal? Great; when you hear of the next long-term animal abuser, looking at the pathetic images of the poor creatures, and you’re saying what should be done to him, be sure and leave starvation out of your proposed penalty. Do that for everything you believe “everyone deserves.”
“Two wrongs don’t make a right.” It just sounds so good, and our parents repeated it so often, that we forgot to ask ourselves whether it was dumb. Someone punches you. You punch them back, partly to show them that being punched hurts, and partly to defend yourself. You just used violence. According to this infantile saying, you are now wrong too. We don’t even believe it as a society. Unless, that is, we believe that attacking Axis forces during World War II–thus using violence to drive them out of lands they had conquered and begun to oppress–made us just as bad as the Axis, or even worse (since we dropped more bombs on cities, including two nuclear weapons). By this saying’s reasoning, all assholes should always be allowed to get away with all bad acts without being struck back in consequence. Now: is it always moral and suitable to respond exactly in kind to a wrong done? Of course not. There are times when it definitely is not. If a four-year-old stabs you with a fork, and makes you bleed, clearly you must not stab the child in return. There are times when it makes more sense to respond with greater force, such as when a woman’s date rape has begun and all he’s done so far is tear her blouse open. Suppose she can lay her hand on a screwdriver. Should she not then shove that thing into his neck, thus ending the rape before it reaches its logical conclusion? Don’t tell her “two wrongs don’t make a right.”
Society floats along on a sea of slogans and gnomic sayings we have heard so often that most of us no longer question them. If you do question them, you’ll become one of those weirdo freethinkers who does not fit into one of the accepted pigeonholes. Your intellectual life will be much more interesting, since media will daily serve you bowls of falsehood and bad assumptions. Full disclosure, though: only do this if you dread being invited to vapid parties.