Thursday, September 3, 2009

Self critiques: ii. Aphorisms, clichés, and thought termination.

You may notice I'm a big fan of aphorisms. However, since my new focus is on trying to revive the (mostly) lost art of critical thinking, I realize aphorisms can be problematic.

An aphorism is a cutesy phrase that helps easily remind you of a way to navigate through a complex situation and remember your thought processes concerning it. A recent one I have used is "Only Nixon could go to China." When we say that phrase, what we SHOULD be doing is reminding you of the complexities of American foreign policy during the Cold War and certain timeless political realities. As aphorisms go, it's a fairly good one, because it's useless in other contexts, and you can only understand the reference by returning to the previous considered complexity.

Another good one is "do unto others as you would have them do unto you." It wraps up a great deal of ethical debate into a mindset that encourages simple empathy. It is also difficult to use oppressively, because it's difficult to imagine many interpersonal problems that are caused by too much empathy.

It's when aphorisms get too broad in application or are supported by too little critical thought that they become trouble. A good example is "thinking outside the box". All too often, it can be used as an excuse to hurt people's feelings or cause disruption for the sake of causing disruption. It might also be used as a license to think or act in a grossly stupid manner. However, the concept can still be useful if used carefully. A good term for these sayings is "cliché," though there are clichés that didn't start out as worn-out aphorisms (but clever ideas, sure).

Clichés are not terribly harmful in and of themselves, because they can still be critiqued and discussed if people are so-motivated. But some go further--some are so reactive, so mindless, that they have the tendency to foreclose further rational disussion or thought.

A great example is "We will have to agree to disagree." It's polite enough--it's deeply disguised in a highbrow Voltairesque mutual respect. But don't be fooled for a second--when you use this phrase what you are really saying is, "I find your thinking to be painful to me in some way, and I don't want to deal with it right now, so I'm telling you to fuck off, before I punch you in the nose."

A term for these sorts of sayings is "Thought-terminating cliché." I mean, sure, a polite way of expressing your frustration is probably better than kicking a debate opponent in the balls, but the way people hide this sort of non-thought in a form of genteelism is really embarrassing.

Anyway, the point of all this is that:

  • I overuse aphorisms, but I hope to use them only as aids to thinking, not impediments to it.

  • Don't hide behind politeness as an excuse to avoid thinking. Think of other ways to say this, such as, "I find what you say provocative and interesting, but I have no response to it right now. Could we discuss this later?" Even if you're totally lying, at least you've left the door open to thought.


April said...

Your second point is good (at the end of your post), but I think that takes either the personality that often thinks before they speak (a polite person?) , a lot of f'ing training, or learning this through good examples from early in your life.

When you don't even know you have the options, sometimes the only thing to do short of strangling someone IS the cliche.

e l i e c e said...

I've thought a great deal about the last bit here: "agree to disagree". I don't think it's a cop-out. I think it is selective, a pick-your-battles situation.