The thought-terminating cliché (also called thought-stopper or bumper sticker logic) is more purely a verbal weapon than the rest of the fallacies we’ve covered. But it is very common.
The thought-terminating cliché is a common phrase, usually catchy and sharp, used to end a discussion. The purpose of the cliché is not to make a rational point, but rather to escape a rational discussion. It’s the kind of schoolyard foolishness we’d like people to grow out of by ten years old:
See, you’re wrong.
Well… You’re fat!
So, once again we find a trick that’s positively juvenile, but that’s used all the time, and very often successfully. When a discussion goes too far, one side comes up with a trite phrase like one of these:
That’s just your opinion.
You and your conspiracy theories!
Now is not the time for this discussion.
Ah! It’s all good.
Those sayings add precisely no factual input to any discussion. They are simply attempts to end a conversation. It’s a cheap, false demeaning and childish way out, but it’s used profligately. I recently ran into a fine example of it in a discussion with highly regarded academics:
One man made a comment on monopolies of violence being a good thing. I responded citing the work of Professor Rummel of the University of Hawaii, calculating 262 million “deaths by government” in the 20th century; rigorous work that rather damned the man’s argument. It was at this point that a someone else called my comment “fucking absurd,” and a professor of political science at one of the top universities in the world chimed in.
PolySci: One problem here is the counterfactual: how many more millions would have been killed *without* legitimate monopolies on violence?
Me: Sure, this is fuzzier than a double-blind study, but crime, the other violent killer, continued under all the monopolies. So not a great deal of change is likely.
Me: “That’s fucking absurd” is a defense of dogma. It conveys no information.
PolySci: Hyperbole can be equally dangerous. (Defending the vulgar dogmatist rather than touching my point.)
Me: Dangers of any flavor ought not to be indulged. (Trying to be polite and get back to a discussion.)
PolySci: Like I said. (The terminating cliché.)
Me: You seem to be devoted to winning, PolySci, not to communicating. By omission you condoned throwing “fucking absurd” at someone who was using facts to make a point. Moreover, that’s something you accepted as dangerous, by saying “equally.” You’ve contradicted yourself.
At this point PolySci ceased communicating, as did the vulgar dogmatist.
I think the points in parentheses above make this example clear. PlySci sought to get away from my argument by slicing me with my own words, but what she also did was contradict herself.
And so you see that people at the highest intellectual levels don’t operate much differently than schoolyard name-callers.
How The Trick Works
This trick can rest upon several types of emotional pressure. Fear of authority is certainly one of them and fearing the ridicule of observers is another, particularly on social media. The big reason this trick works, however, is cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort people experience when an idea they’ve long held as true meets a contradictory idea that is, or seems to be, based upon better evidence. The terminating cliché works because it offers people a way to escape their discomfort.
The use of the classic terminating cliché, “That’s a conspiracy theory!” illustrates this well:
You begin discussing something that makes a government look bad.
The other person or persons are committed to “government is unquestionably good” for any number of reasons, and become not only uncomfortable, but fearful of considering anything else.
Accusing you of being a “conspiracy theorist” is an almost sure-fire way to shut down the discussion.
As so, whatever other reasons may be involved, getting rid of cognitive dissonance is nearly always the secret ingredient that makes this trick work.
The terminating cliché, then, is an exercise in non-thinking and in non-courage.
New and conflicting ideas are simply necessary to us; it’s our job to stand up to them, examine them and change our expectations and judgments if required. If we cannot bring ourselves to do that, we freeze in place. Still, we should try to understand why this is so common.
Chief among those reasons is a sad fact… that in the modern West, most people feel like they’re facing an incomprehensible world. Traditional ways have been expelled and their replacements are not just irrational, but stridently anti-rational. And while most people do get some clear thinking at home, many millions are left with no distant star to guide by.
In this circumstance, people tend to contract their horizons, holding on to whatever they do have and fearing to let go of it, even if letting go is required to get something better.
When people can’t grasp what’s really better or worse, there’s no payoff in letting go of anything, only risk. That’s a terrible state to live in, of course, but that’s precisely where the major currents in education have brought millions of people.
What To Keep In Mind
The first thing to keep in mind when getting slapped with a terminating cliché, is that the other person has reached the end of their arguments. They wouldn’t resort to non-reason if they had any reason left. So, no matter how bad the slap may feel – and it’s always worse if others are watching – keep in mind that you’ve pretty well established your facts and that they can’t refute them.
We should also accept that the person on the other side is playing the thug. They are not being reasonable or polite; they are being brutish. But, they are doing this because of weakness and discomfort. And so, while you may have the right to reply harshly, it probably won’t create a lot of benefit. Rather, it will likely lead to further brutishness. And so an obvious response like this probably doesn’t have much of a payoff:
That’s it? You haven’t the guts to change your mind and so you pull out some trite little slogan, hoping that I’ll hustle away?
A rather opposite type of response may not have a great deal of payoff either:
I’m sorry you’re too frightened to think new thoughts, Jim, and I’m sorry you’re resorting to verbal thuggery to cover your fears, but what I said is true anyway.
The most useful response is probably something like this:
You’ve ceased with reasoned discussion. I’ll leave you as you are. (Then walk away.)
This type of response has some chance of sticking in the other person’s mind – or at least in the minds of some observers – and coming back at some useful moment.
Once a discussion reaches the stage of the terminating cliché, you’re probably best off treating it as over. Most of us will want to add a defiant end note – we don’t want a thug to win, after all – but we should probably work at getting rid of our desire to win/not lose. Those desires are understandable, but they serve us poorly in most cases. (That, however, is a subject for another day.)
More next time.