LogicWarrior Demand Reason

20Sep/100

The Power of Removing Cliches

Summary: Cliches may seem like a shortcut but they can introduce holes in arguments and get discussions off topic.  If you find rigor important, cliches are not worth their word savings and a savvy audience will recognize them as a mark of laziness or tired writing.  Conversely, a cliche can be a wedge to cut into a poorly constructed argument or to attack hasty writing.

What's a cliche? A trite, stereotyped expression; a sentence or phrase, usually expressing a popular or common thought or idea, that has lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse, as sadder but wiser,  or strong as an ox.  <wordporn>The term cliche comes from the name of a stencil or plate in certain types of printing and may be derived from the sound made in printing.</wordporn>

cliche. (n.d.). Dictionary.com Unabridged. Retrieved September 20, 2010, from Dictionary.com website: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/cliche

Why do we see so many? Two reasons, poor writing, and poor revising.  Some cliches create a shortcut for the reader about the author like the phrases  sands of time, this day and age, march of history, winds of change all suggesting a certain historical agency or prophecy of the writer.  Regarding editing, Grammar Girl summed it up nicely "Clichés often appear in early drafts when you're trying to keep the writing going but you've run out of words to describe an action, event, or person."  If your argument is going to be submitted via text, do a check for them and replace cliches with another phrasing.  Internet discourse often involves hasty writing and eschews editing so cliches frequently appear.

Punish Arguments that Use Cliches

Ask for Specifics - Cliches  let one cheat by leveraging the manifold meanings of a word or phrase.  If someone says "society doesn't value the artist", society could refer to a culture, a specific class, pop media, some derisive title for tastemakers, or some other group entirely. The person may be trying to use a word in two difference senses at once such as stating that "society doesn't value the work of neo-post-industrial  slash-grindcore artist and society should pay for the creative work we do".  The first instance of society may refer to tastemakers while the second instance may refer to the population of consumers as a whole.  Ask "could please explain what you mean by society?" if the person's not thought about their definitions what they say may not jive with their usage.

Take Advantage of Context - If an argument uses a cliche as a shortcut, attack the terms of the shortcut.  Someone attacking Western consumerism may use the phrase "there are children starving in Africa" to point out resource waste caused by perceived excessive consumption but food shortages have many reasons.  A reply of "what does despotic government have to do with my new car?" or "yes, regional differences in climate can cause famine but I don't see how that relates to my rock garden".  "Starving in Africa" fails because the cultural knowledge is too high.

Avoiding cliches circumvents these vulnerabilities and with throw of an opponent who has prepared for them.  An advocate for capitalism may say "unhindered trade improves the lives of all it touches" the Africa cliche leaves open many holes and could be circumvented with "how has it helped the Mongolian cattle rancher whose fleece is sold worldwide but who has nothing beyond what fits in his yurt?"

Strategic Cliche Use

The Irony Reply - The most devastating reply leveraging cliches that I've seen occurred at Carpenter Hall during an taping of Justice Talking years ago. "You've said we need to do this 'for our children's future, to help mother earth, and for sustainable growth and have refused to provide data.  Please stop treating us like children".  I considered this a wonderful example of pointing out that an astute audience will frown upon the use of cliches and recognize them as an evasive tactic.

Strategic Vagueness - I consider this cheating but have found cases where I hadn't quite figured out the fine points of an argument, where the picture wasn't quite finished and I may not have been able to fill it in:

MC Escher "Print Gallery" - The area in the center is unfillable

A cliche is a fat marker to the fine-point pen of elegant reason.  The cliche taps the part of the mind that allows for historicity, tradition, and "conventional wisdom" which escapes the full light of reason.  Someone was attempting to convince me that President Obama was some sort of Commie Nazi and attempted to capitalize on my ignorance of his family history by simply saying "the apple doesn't fall far from the tree" after suggesting that Obama's father was a radical of some stripe.  "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree" is horseshit that is trivially refuted by anecdote of the dozens of case I've encountered with large generational differences.  If he said "children are like their parents" instead he probably would have been more aware of the failings of what he said and I would have been faster to point them out.

Twist of Phrase - Changing the phrasing can lead to some interesting alterations.  The pot calling the kettle metal, a penny saved is a penny not spent, when god gives you lemons you find a new god, like cars chasing dogs, and the squeaky wheel gets the grease but is the first to be replaced. These devices both fight cliches and the often faulty reasoning that enables them.

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