I am going to hit you with a little bit of pop culture but we’re gonna go non-fiction. Because I really want to dig into the harm that cliches do. Not any particular cliche but a general way of thinking and speaking that is derivative, trite, hackneyed, platitudinal, whatever synonym you want to choose.
And nothing says “harm” like the Nazis. That’s right, Nazis loved cliches! Literally and figuratively, cliches are how the Holocaust happened. Before I embark on a somewhat dark rhetorical history lesson, though, I’m gonna give you a little dose of pop culture from one of my favorite television shows, The Blacklist, starring one of my all-time faves, James Spader, as Raymond Reddington, a kind of Hannibal Lecter type character who is more crime boss and less fava beans and chianti but similarly works with the FBI to catch elusive international criminal masterminds.
Alright so we’re mid-season 4 in this scene and Reddington is giving advice to someone on how to kill someone else in a way that not only gets the job done–i.e. person is good and dead without possibility of retaliation–but also sends a message that anyone else who gets any wise ideas will meet a similar fate. (sidenote: I would be such a good crime boss if I didn’t believe people were inherently good).
[Blacklist season 4 episode 10
19:10-19:24 “one need only announce loudly enough to scare off other pretenders to the throne. May I suggest something in broad daylight? Perhaps a nice car bombing? A cliche, I know, but cliches work. That’s how they got to be cliches.”]
I actually stumbled on this scene after I started publishing RhetoricLee Speaking and as soon as the word “cliche” came out of Spader’s mouth I was fucking ecstatic because it proves how goddamn RIGHT I am about everything.
Cliches are essentially weapons of mass destruction.Tweet
Yes, the object actually doing the killing is the car bomb–that’s the topic or the thing so to speak–but the idea behind the car bomb’s effectivity is that it is a cliche, which Reddington describes as something that is both obvious and also works. The car bomb has been done so many times precisely because no matter how many times it is done it continues to work. In other words, no matter how many times a car bomb kills someone, either in fiction or real life, most people don’t go around guarding themselves against car bombs. They’re deadly, essentially, because they hide in plain sight.
Cliches made up of words and phrases work very similarly. No matter how many times someone says, oh, let’s say, “face to face communication is so much better than texting”–a cliche that couldn’t be less true–it continues to have traction because no one has learned to guard themselves against it. So it just keeps doing more and more damage because, one, people haven’t been trained to call it out as bullshit. People know it’s bullshit. There’s no one way of communicating that is ever always better than another mode. Even my almost 70-year old father, who CONSTANTLY complains about people being on their cell phones, will still tell me how much he prefers sending text messages to certain people who talk way too long on the telephone. He will also be the first person to complain if I pull out my phone to look something up on during a movie, because “in his day, people had to actually just figure it out on their own,” and then be the FIRST person to text me and ask me to look up a telephone number for some online gun manufacturer.
We all know that there are plenty of situations in which face-to-face is great and terrible and so it is true as well for text messaging, and email, and podcasting, and handwritten letters. But when we hear people say “face to face communication is so much better than texting,” it has circulated so much that we either silently disagree or just kind of fall automatically into agreement.
My students will write papers on how technology has ruined their communication and then when I say, “do you actually believe any of this,” they’re like, “I don’t know, kind of” and I’m like, “then why did you fucking write it down if you don’t even really believe it?” And then their eyes glaze over and they stop listening.
When people say shit like that to me, I look them dead in their eye and I say, “for whom? For introverts? For people with processing or learning challenges? For people with disabilities? For people with social anxiety? For people who are in positions of power where they get to set the agenda and ramble on and on for as long as they want without consequence? FOR WHOM, exactly, is a face-to-face communication BETTER than a text message?
We don’t call people on their cliche bullshit because we don’t want to make it weird, or awkward, or seem confrontational. Instead, we just let people walk around in their banal incubators, metaphorically getting into cars wired to explode. Not to mention the actual issue of car bombs and how easy it is for those of us who live in a country where I don’t have to worry about a white van blowing up next to the farmer’s market on a regular basis but I’ll leave that alone for now. It’s upsetting.
Instead, let’s talk about the Holocaust.
So long story short, the Holocaust happens. And working underneath Adolf Hitler as his right hand was a man by the name of Adolf Eichmann. Hitler didn’t survive the ending of World War II but Eichmann did and in 1963, Eichmann was tried for war crimes in Jerusalem. In the words of the prosecutor, quote: “there was only one man who had been concerned almost entirely with the Jews, whose business had been their destruction, whose role in the establishment of the iniquitous regime had been limited to them. That was Adolf Eichmann.”
In attendance at the trial was Hannah Arendt, a philosopher and journalist and also a Jew who managed to escape Europe during Nazi occupation. Arendt sat through the entire Eichmann trial and wrote a lengthy article for The New Yorker that you can still find online if you’d like to read the whole thing.
Arendt, who is brilliant, unsurprisingly made a lot of brilliant observations. Foremost among them was the degree to which Eichmann’s ability to put six million people to their horrifying deaths depended on his IN-ability to think in any nuanced or creative way about what he was doing. Arendt’s report on the trial gave birth to the phrase “the banality of evil,” which means, quite simply, that the most depraved acts are authorized by the most superficial ways of thinking. I’m going to read you an excerpt from Arendt’s report to that effect. It’s long so assume I’m still Arendt until I tell you otherwise.
The German text of the taped police examination, which was conducted by Captain Less between May 29, 1960, and January 17, 1961, and each page of which was corrected and approved by Eichmann, demonstrates that the horrible can sometimes be not only ludicrous but downright funny. Some of the comedy cannot be conveyed in English, because it lies in Eichmann’s heroic fight with the German language, which invariably defeats him […] The real point here is that officialese became his language because he was genuinely incapable of uttering a single sentence that was not a cliché. […] The judges were right when they finally told the accused that all he had said was “empty talk”—except that they thought the emptiness feigned, and believed that the accused wished to cover up other thoughts, which were not empty but hideous. This supposition seems refuted by the striking consistency with which Eichmann, despite his rather bad memory, constantly repeated, word for word, the same stock phrases and self-invented clichés […] in referring to every event or incident that was of some importance to him […] when he did succeed in constructing a sentence of his own, he thereupon repeated it until it became a cliché […] Whether he wrote his memoirs in Argentina or in Jerusalem, whether he talked to the police examiner or to the court, what he said was always the same, expressed in the same words. The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think; that is, to think from the standpoint of somebody else. No communication with him was possible, not because he lied but because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against the words of others, or even the presence of others, and hence against reality as such.Hannah Arendt, “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” The New Yorker
Now, obviously, plenty of people go about their days using all manner of cliches and do not turn into Adolph Eichmann. The point isn’t that banality automatically yields evil but rather that evil is not possible without the insulation from critical thought that banality provides.