“Because I said so.”
“We’ll have to agree to disagree.”
“Everyone is entitled to their own opinion.”
We’ve all heard them. Some even end up on bumper stickers. These common phrases that seem intended to end debate and conversation. And I noticed lately that the political season really brings them out again. But I felt awkward because I didn’t have a term or label for them. These phrases that we’ve heard thousands of times that basically all end up meaning “I am really not interested in discussing this with you. I am sure that I am right, and I am sure that you are wrong. Or at least that is what I want to believe and this discussion is making me uncomfortable.” I was reminded of one of the first Internet e-mail messages that got forwarded around in the late 80s from Dave Barry called “How to Win Arguments” – it was irreverent but insightful. In addition to the obvious strategies on winning arguments like “Make things up” it talked about using “meaningless but weighty-sounding words and phrases” and using “snappy and irrelevant comebacks”, and also was the first time I saw the suggestion to “compare your opponent to Adolf Hitler” as a final straw. But these strategies come back to mind whenever we are in the thick of a political season.
I think I was Googling one of the phrases when I saw it listed in a group titled “Thought-Terminating Cliches” and thought that this was the term I’ve been looking for – so I wanted to share. It looks like the term is based on a book from the 60s which studied brainwashing in China. And while I am sure there is more interesting insights in the book, what I really wanted was the term. Once we have a term to talk about we can start noticing the pattern and decide when (and when not) to use these powerful little phrases.
So what are some examples of the phrases? When should they be used? And when shouldn’t they be used?
When should they be used? That is the easier one – whenever you really want to stop a discussion about a topic, for whatever reason. If the discussion is about a fundamental belief you have, the discussion is getting out of control or nasty, or you are just tired (in general or of the discussion/discusser) and want to be done – even just done for now. Once you know these and can recognize them, use them when needed but also see when others are using them and understand what they mean.
When should they not be used? When you really do want to continue a discussion and care about the topic and care about the person that you are talking with. Don’t send a false message that the discussion is over if you really would like the opposite to be true. Sending someone an “We’ll just have to agree to disagree.”, when you really want to work on convincing them of your side of the discussion, can cut things off prematurely.
So what are some examples (some from experience, many from Google):
- “Because I said so.” – mostly helpful with kids, not helpful with adults unless you need to rely on positional leadership. See also: “You don’t always get what you want.”, “Life is unfair”, “You are not being a team player.”, “Because that’s our policy/position”
- “We’ll have to agree to disagree.” – clearly a discussion ender, between two immovable objects. It’s an attempt to highlight the “us vs. them” or “red vs. blue”. See also: “If you aren’t with us you are against us”, “Well it depends on the person.”, “To each his own”, “It’s a matter of opinion”, “Love it or leave it”, “That sounds like something a (liberal/conservative/libertarian/communist/atheist/Christian etc.) would say.”, “Political Correctness”, and the Hitler comparison.
- “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion.” See also: “It takes all kinds to make a world.” basically saying that there is no “right” or “wrong” in the issue, it’s all relative, so why argue about it?
- “The ‘mainstream media'” – an assertion that there is a grand coordinated conspiracy among a group that is pushing the message that your opponent is claiming which makes it false. Again, not saying whether this is true or false, but a firm belief in this will remove the need for a discussion.
- “That’s a no-brainer” – this is really a whole category. Implying that you are smarter than the other person so if they are not getting your point there is an intellectual deficiency on your part (p.s. It’s usually the opposite that is true when this tack is used). See also: “Think about it.”, “You do the math.”, “It works in theory but not in practice”, “Stupid is as stupid does.”, “Science shows …” (siting a specific scientific study/paper/result is different than just appealing to “Science” or nameless “Scientists”)
- “When you get to my age…” – similar to the above but using age superiority instead of intelligence. See also: “When you get older, you’ll see”.
- “Be a man/woman/race/group” – appeal to a group. See the “No true Scotsman” fallacy, See also: “You call yourself a man/woman/race/group?”, “That’s racist/sexist/homophobic/antisemitic/un-grouplike” – this also gets into name calling, which is also a great discussion-ender.
- “That’s not Biblical” – this goes with the appeal to “Science” above, if you are making an appeal to the Bible as an authority, be specific (book/verse/version), not general. See also: “Only a fool says there is no God.”, “Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve”. Generally referring to “Science” (or specific scientist) or “The Bible” (or specific Biblical author/person) as a higher blanket authority may be accurate (from your point of view) and a discussion-ender, but if you want to continue the discussion, site specifics that can be referenced and talked about.
So there are topics that people have firmly-held beliefs that are really not open to discussion based on a particular faith or worldview: Pro-Life/Pro-Choice, Marriage, Murder, Slavery, 10 Commandments, Bill of Rights, etc. These may be discussions you don’t want to have with someone, and now you have a good collection of phrases that can confer this position. But if there are subjects that are open to discussion and debate, be sure to watch yourself for using thought-ending cliches, and ask others to clarify/support their interest in ending the debate when they use them.