Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton popularized the idea of the “Thought-Terminating Cliché.”
He wrote, “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 other words, a Thought-Terminating Cliché is a word or phrase that invites a person to stop thinking so much about something and just accept something without critical thought. Things like, “That’s just the way it goes,” or “It’s just common sense,” or “You need to be a team player.” Rather than presenting an argument, a Thought-Terminating Cliché is a tactic that generally appeals to emotion over reason, usually with the implication that the person on the receiving end is either unwise or will be excluded from future decision making if they continue to argue.
I decided to bring this up because I’ve seen a tendency in our current political and social discourse that certain people (and I admit, I have been guilty of this more than once) can find themselves believing they have won a debate simply by calling their opponent a dirty name. I’m sure this tactic is as old as spoken language itself, but I’m not sure if we’ve ever given it a name more specific than name-calling. So, in the hopes that identifying this tactic may lead us toward recognizing it and doing our best to avoid using it, I suggest the term “Thought-Terminating Pejorative,” specifically regarding the act of reducing an opponent’s argument to a perceived and undesirable identity.
We can’t win arguments by calling our opponents “Nazis” or “Social Justice Warriors” or “Conservitards” or “Cucks” (a slang, derogatory term for weak or inadequate men). Even if we were debating Josef Stalin himself, there is no rhetorical or moral victory in saying we are morally superior just because he is a Communist and he is no more a victor just because he calls us Capitalists.
What we (admittedly, I more than most) need to bear in the forefront of our minds when debating, no matter the subject, is this: “The facts simply do not change based on the identity of the person presenting them.”
So, in the spirit of healing a nation divided, let’s move away from labeling each other and back to talking about the facts of the issues rather than the identity of who is presenting the issues. We’d all be better off in the long run, and we might actually learn to respect the people we disagree with. I, for one, know my blood pressure could certainly benefit from it.