On clichés

by The Editor

SERIES: The Thing About is a weekly Business Day column designed to discuss democratic ideas, ideals, values and principles from a liberal perspective. Cliches are now so common their effect has been denuded of its value – instead of enliving debate, they dull it down. And, with their over-use, has come the uncritical perception they suggest wisdom and knowledge. A perception often abused by those whom evoke and hide behind their empty meaning.

On clichés

By: Gareth van Onselen

3 July 2012

Many great writers have argued clichés today are so misused and abused their meaning has been stripped away from them, and thus ring hollow – an allusion not to deep insight but rather shallow ignorance.

That is one facet of the problem clichés now represent to any original thinker. Another is how that allusion is misused by those who would feign wisdom, who talk almost exclusively in axioms and maxims in order to appear knowledgable. Depending on their audience, this allows them to achieve two things: on the one hand, to avoid critical interrogation of what they say; on the other, to engender the perception each platitude they deliver is the culmination of careful and considered thought; when, in truth, you can be sure it is little more than a throw-away banality and they are none the wiser to its inherent limitations.

To act in this manner is much like wearing a transparent mask. On close inspection, it is easy to see through its façade but, should it catch the light in just the right way, those susceptible to cant might nevertheless be blinded by its reflection. At least, that is what the wearer hopes – one will fail properly to pay attention to detail and be impressed by the sage judgement and grand insight they seemingly demonstrate.

By nature clichés are a truism, no doubt applicable to some circumstance and therefore carrying a kernel of truth; but, just as likely, not applicable to others and therefore limited. Yet they sound right. And they feel good; a warm and fuzzy thought. That is their great appeal. The fact that they are in essence a generalization, however, should alert one to the problems they introduce: a chance to test those exceptions to them and their importance, rather than assume each cliché to be all encompassing.

Many prefer to accept clichés at face value and credit their author with more knowledge than they deserve. Humbug is more comforting than criticism. Of greater value, though, is specific detail and an appreciation of subtlety and difference. Indeed, an ability to identify and define difference is a sure sign of self awareness.

Beware the person who talks in primarily in clichés, chances are they have something to hide. And that something is often nothing at all.

An abbreviated version of this column first appeared in the Business Day. For more columns from The Thing About series, click here.

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