Thought-terminating cliché

From RationalWiki
Jump to navigation Jump to search
We control what
you think with

Icon language.svg
Said and done
Jargon, buzzwords, slogans

A thought-terminating cliché is a saying, often a tautology, that is repeated in order to relieve the stress of cognitive dissonance by avoiding all further consideration of a matter. Everyday examples include "it is what it is",[1] "it's just common sense," and "you gotta do what you gotta do." It was first described in 1963 by Robert Jay Lifton, who studied American servicemembers who had exhibited drastic ideological change after being held as prisoners of war by the Chinese Government:[2]:429

The language of the totalist environment is characterized by the thought-terminating cliché. The most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed. These become the start and finish of any ideological analysis. In thought reform, for instance, the phrase "bourgeois mentality" is used to encompass and critically dismiss ordinary troublesome concerns like the quest for individual expression, the exploration of alternative ideas, and the search for perspective and balance in political judgments.
—Robert Jay Lifton

The concept of "thought-terminating cliché" was preceded by the related concept of "ultimate term", originally published in Richard Weaver's 1953 book The Ethics of Rhetoric.[2]:[3]:212-232

Thought-terminating clichés are an important aspect of mind control as used by cults. For example, the Unification Church uses the cliché "you think too much," while Alcoholics Anonymous says "your best thinking got you here" and "utilize, don't analyze."[4] At the same time, they can also be used by more vanilla religions; for example, credo quia absurdum estWikipedia ("I believe because it is absurd") or appeal to novelty.

These sorts of clichés are common in totalitarian societies; according to Hannah Arendt,Wikipedia Adolf EichmannWikipedia "was genuinely incapable of uttering a single sentence that was not a cliché," and he used these clichés as a mental defense mechanism to avoid thinking about what he was doing for the Nazi Party.[5]


  • The Lord works in mysterious ways. – Stop thinking about facts or events that directly contradict your theology.
  • All's well that ends well. – Don't think about the lessons learned and mistakes made.
  • You never know until you try. – Please ignore that there might be compelling evidence that trying this would be a tremendous waste or present a dangerous risk.
  • You never succeed for not trying. – It doesn't matter that you are fallible or that things might go wrong.
  • Do, or do not; there is no try. – Conversely, don't bother to consider your own fallibility or that things might go wrong
  • Make of it what you will, but… – This evidence might lead to other conclusions, but only listen to mine.
  • …but that’s just what I make of it. – I might be following this evidence to the right conclusion(s), but you can still listen to your own.
  • If you don't like it, don't buy it. – Don't point out that I'm scamming people.
  • That's just your opinion/I'm entitled to my opinion. – Don't worry about well-informed or different opinions; they're all equal. Implying all opinions are of equal value, suggesting that you shouldn't try to push your "opinion" on other people, but this is false when talking about factual matters.[6]
  • If you watched the whole thing, you can't say it's horrible.[7] – It's not like having the whole context helps you form such an opinion.
  • Reacting with "This isn't new." or a dismissive "why are you surprised?" when there is news of corruption and scandals – Real recurring problems are not worth addressing.
  • I'm just saying. – when appended to any statement (written or spoken) to assert that you can't argue with it because it's someone's opinion or something. Whatever. Just sayin'.[8]
  • I'm just asking questions – Nevermind that I know the answer is no, I just want you to believe the answer is yes.
  • Read a book/Read theory/Do your own research. – I am unable to contribute meaningfully to the discussion, so I am shifting the burden of proof onto you instead of defending my claims.
  • Just Say No – Nancy Reagan’s infamous anti-drug campaign. It doesn’t address the reasons why one should say no to drugs, trivializing the reasons people do drugs and implying that drug abuse is an individual’s moral failing rather than a societal one, and is ineffective anyway (if quitting drugs was that easy, there would be no problem).[9][10]
  • Using "national security" as a pretext for infringing on people's rights at home and waging war abroad. – It portrays you as unpatriotic (or something worse) for objecting to mass surveillance, wars of aggression, and other things supposedly done in the name of security.
  • Accusations of mansplaining are sometimes used to shut down debate, according to critics of the term.
  • It's a republic, not a democracy – This ignores that a republic and democracy are compatible types of government, and frequently overlap. A republic means a state which isn't headed by a monarch, and democracy means the government has been chosen by its population. It would be like saying "Tom Brady is a quarterback, not a football player", when the former is a type of the latter. The republic-not-democracy line is used to dishonestly imply that "democracy" is equivalent to mob rule, and to justify anti-democratic minority rule. In the case of the US, where this line usually gets used (and many other places) it's both, and this has been the case for a long time.
  • It's not supposed to win Oscars – This movie shouldn't be held to the same quality standards as an art film or some Oscar bait, so it shouldn't be held to any standards at all.[11]
  • The grass is always greener on the other side – Don't question why the status quo isn't up to the standards set by someone else.
  • Agree to disagree – I have made a factual error or a bullshit point, and you have challenged it, but I want my refuted point to still stand.

See also[edit]


  1. Trump on Covid death toll: ‘It is what it is’ CNN, 4 August 2020.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of 'Brainwashing' in China' by Robert Jay Lifton (1963) W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0393002217.
  3. The Ethics of Rhetoric by Richard Weaver (2015) Echo Point Books & Media. ISBN 1626541108.
  4. Charles Bufe, Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure?
  5. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil
  6. Thought-terminating clichés, qoume blog, Oct 14, 2020
  7. Netflix twitter
  8. It's Rude! It's Crude! It's Stupid! Just Sayin', NPR, Dec 18, 2010
  9. Scott O. Lilienfeld and Hal Arkowitz, Why "Just Say No" Doesn't Work. Scientific American, 1 January 2014.
  10. Michael McGrath, Nancy Reagan and the negative impact of the 'Just Say No' anti-drug campaign. The Guardian, 8 March 2016.
  11. It's Not Supposed to Win Oscars. TVTropes.