10 Cliches That Try to Take the Place of Legitimate Argument

We’re all guilty of it, whether in our daily conversations, debates or blog posts. Analogy and illustration serve to simplify our understanding and answers to life’s complex conundrums. Sometimes, however, these over-used aphorisms over-simplify to the point of absurdity. It may even amount to pseudo-intellectual name-dropping, hoping to fool your audience into thinking that because you know who George Santayana was, that being in such good company means your reasoning must be thoroughly sound!

They may have a legitimate point, they may even be saying something you agree with, but “a broken clock is still right twice a day,” and fallacious logic can still coincidentally lead to a correct conclusion.

1. “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

-Albert Einstein

Which is why he stopped trying to comb his hair after a while.

But how else would mutation and evolution have happened, innovation and invention, or the replication of experiments, the very foundation of falsifiability and the cornerstone of scientific discovery?

Actually, I prefer to think that Einstein wasn’t really talking shit on replication, but merely accurately describing that most everything that happens in the cosmos is insane. If you have some stupid theory of everything but your experiments can’t prove your pseudoscience, you’re not wrong to keep trying. Just insane.

People have used his phrase in political arguments, critiques of opponents, constructive criticism of peers, matronly advice, and internet comment sections, all hoping to wow one another with their undeniable wisdom.

When this fails to happen, they do it again and again.

This may be because, as we know, there are no original ideas.

2. “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.”

-T. S. Eliot

And immature artists sue you for stealing

It’s not that I agree or disagree with any of these clichés (although some are undoubtedly ridiculous, as we shall soon see), it’s just that many of them are offered up instead of saying anything valuable at all. Of course creative people steal from their influences, we are all the product of our experiences!

Plagiarism is an even thornier-than-usual issue these days, however, so you had better be careful what you use this old quote to justify!

But I don’t think it’s fair to say that there is no original content. And not everything has to be mash-up or a modernization or a cover or a sequel or a gritty revisioning. Nobody like Ramses II existed before Ramses II (not even Ramses I). And the aforementioned Einstein was obviously thinking on another cosmic plane! To say nothing of Edison, Newton, Galileo, Leonardo Da Vinci, Archimedes… okay, now I’m just name-dropping! And certainly each of them drew on the accumulated knowledge of the great minds that came before, but that’s not really saying anything more than the obvious. We need these mutants to inject genuinely fresh and new ideas because, after all, the rest of us are so stupid.

3. We only use 10% of our brains.

In some cases this is true.

In addition to being on this list for overused phrases, you’ll also find it listed in collections of commonly cited phrases that aren’t even true. Those in the pseudosciences and radio arts often hold Einstein as an example of a God-king who could somehow magically harness 20% of his brain power, with the rest of us catatonically drooling down our fronts with glazed eyes. Many misattribute the quote itself to Einstein, or imply that special training (expensive books and tape) can “unlock” the remaining percentile, or even that impressive psychic powers or a sixth sense reside in the bulk of our unused gray matter.

Although many mysteries regarding brain function remain, every part of the brain has a known function.

According to wikipedia, it may have been early neuroscientists who used the 10% figure when referring to the proportion of neurons in the brain that fire at any given time or to the percentage of the brain’s functions that had been mapped at the time (accounts differ).

No matter, this commonly held misconception has proliferated through our pop culture, and is claimed by paranormal believers so much that one cannot help but wonder if they just want it to be true because it applies more readily in their case. Luckily, for about as many people who use this trite falsehood, there seems to be just as many ready to counter and ridicule it.

4. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it

– George Santayana

Which is why they'll be remaking this movie soon.

I’m not a big believer that history repeats itself in any verifiable or scientifically useful way. That being said, similarities can be found between any two time periods, or probably, between any two things one cares to draw comparisons or confirmation-biases with.

And just what are the parameters? Are my neighbor and I doomed to repeat the events of the Peloponnesian War? If I suddenly forget the Nineties will I wake up one morning with a mullet?

I guess I’m mostly annoyed by the politician’s usage of this gem. When describing the economic collapse of recent memory, it could behoove one side or the other to compare either to the policies that led to the Great Depression, or to the recovery policies that dug us back out.

Invariably, someone uses a shade of this quote to wreak their foul Godwin’s Law, implying that because we are not diligent against the current administration (or whatever), that they must be Nazis readying for a blitz.

But Nazis were all about history! They had a storied passion for their firm place in history, for better or worse, and deliberately chose which facets to glamorize and which to destroy. There was very little unintentional lapse of memory at work.

Ironically, today nazis are often treated as a sinister joke, the sheer ridiculousness itself guarding against tyranny in that very specific form

5. “First they came for the communists,

and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me.”

Martin Niemöller

This seems a very reasonable statement of our human nature to ignore problems until they are at our doorstep, or how we willingly bow to authority, no matter how triumphantly evil. Zimbardo or Millgram in action.

Call it survivor’s guilt, guilt by association, criminal negligence… no matter what it’s called, it’s still just a slippery slope argument. Granted, when cases of genocide are concerned, it’s best to err on the side of not imprisoning and slaughtering millions, but I would still be remiss not to point out that logical fallacy.

And even still, assuming Martin’s speaking for everyone in Reichland to make his point more valid (or at least assuming that the decades of quoters do), then each person up the chain would have also been a varying degree of guilty. There was no one left to speak out for you, because no one was speaking out for anyone, any time, anywhere, anyway.

Another similar (and just as overused) quote is Edmund Burke’s “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” 

No… I mean… evil sort of had the most to do with it… call it 80/20

6. “God does not play dice with the universe.”

-Albert Einstein

Unless this is a tabletop RPG. In which case, God uses many dice.

Einstein’s been proven wrong on many things in the years since his death, as he was just a man, and a product of his time. But this quote should be understood in his context and time, with the understanding that  Neitzsche proclaimed God dead, and that Spinoza proclaimed God to be a sort of pantheistic representation of all being. Similar to Dawkins or Hawking’s assertion of the non-necessity of a God, a reasonable and scientifically literate individual does not need a God to play dice with the universe, but admitting its  irrelevance to science does not render moot the possibility of a personal, non-interventionist deity.

Moreover, religion has nothing to do with it, so people who use this quote to claim that even the infallible Einstein was a believer are missing his point. Einstein was referring to the (then) burgeoning theory and study of quantum mechanics, which in the decades since his death have had numerous verifications and observable interactions with established physics. In fact, the very early precursors to the field are thanks to Einstein himself.

And really, what kind of scientific method would it be if it all just stopped after Einstein? Just because he said or did or thought or believed something, doesn’t mean we all have to!

7. If everyone jumped off a bridge, would you jump off a bridge too?

Hey, man, go with the flow.

Some version of this argument can be heard by desperate debaters and scolding mothers worldwide, and implies that following the herd will bring us to a nasty end. But really, it all depends… Is there a bungie cord? Is the bridge taller than 4ft? Is the goal itself to commit suicide? Am I going to be the very best at it? Has the pile of bodies gotten tall enough to comfortably break my fall?

With its equally clichéd antithesis, “50 million Frenchmen can’t be wrong”, the appeal to popularity or appeal against popularity really tells us nothing about the original argument, or the wisdom in group-thinking. People who follow the “herd” have a “sheep” or “lemming” mentality. And yet, 4 out of 5 experts agree, everyone else is doing it, and you do want to be popular, don’t you?

We need individual thinkers to point out that the Earth is round and goes around the sun, but we also need group cooperation to build roads, operate government, form protests, fight wars, make the trains run on time and populate Coachella.

These fallacious nuggets appear everywhere, but just because everyone else uses them, doesn’t mean you will. Right?

8. “Won’t somebody please think of the children!?”

-Helen Lovejoy

After epochs of stuffiness and reactionary noisemaking by parental associations and nosy church busybodies, imagine how much slower our society must have progressed due to whatever scary monster-of-the-week was lodged in their collective craws.

We basically ended up with violent Prohibition in the U.S. because of ‘The Boogeyman’, and this ‘reasoning’ still wreaks havoc in our schools, on our televisions, and in our libraries. All sorts of censorship have been implemented to protect our defenseless children, from comic books, video gamesplastic-propelling toyssex in music and the cartoons in cigarette advertising. More accurately, censorship is put in place so that one group of vocal zealots can get their way, or to disenfranchise another group, or to help facilitate half-assed under-parenting.

The entirety of Jenny McCarthy’s insane and factually-vacant crusade against vaccination can be summed up as ‘for the sake of the children.’ You know what the children really need? Intellectual discourse and critical thinking to engineer a better world for them to grow up in. I know, it sounds batty.

At the same time, the really cool, really old people remind us how easy kids today have it. How back in their day, they only had a jagged shard of metal to play with, or how they used to have to work in a factory for seventeen hours a day for pennies, or how they used to be afraid of things like… y’know… polio.

Come to think of it, back in my day, we had playgrounds made of concrete and steel. Kids have it so easy.

9. “Greed is good”

               -Gordon Gecko

For all your conniving and success, you still couldn't avoid LeBeouf.

For all your conniving and success, you still couldn't avoid LeBeouf.

Especially true in this era of class warfare, where the top blah-blah-blah-percent blah-blah-blah against the bottom blah-blah-blah-percent! We hear this from the right-wing media, the corporate elites, and their bought legislators. It’s the defining principle at work in ‘Trickle-Down Economics’, deregulation, free market principles, and Citizen’s United.

I could write multiple separate essays on all that Ayn Rand nonsense (and I have), but mostly I just hate it when cautionary tales are taken out of context, idolized and seen as divine inspiration. How soon we forget how things ended for Gordon Gecko, or Tony Montana, or Don Corleone, as instead we are bedazzled by the short-lived success and glory. Unfortunately, things do not turn out as bad for the baddies in real life, who seem to rarely see their downfall from massive hubris. It’s nefarious, it’s ignorant, and it’s bitter irony.

Which serves as a reminder that the original cautionary tale was Satan’s.

10. Those who choose not to vote shouldn’t be allowed to complain.

Good enough reason for anyone to complain.

Or any other fascistic (though perhaps well-meaning) platitudes of intellectual treacle. If somebody exercises their freedom of speech and vote by abstaining, then that’s a perfectly reasonable choice. As if a dictatorship or some other undesirable federal form of government would affect non-voters differently than voters! In fact, it’s the political ideologues and loud patriots who would hear the boots marching first, not the apathetic whiners.

Why is it that if someone chooses not to perform one constitutionally granted right, they should be stripped of an entirely different enumerated one? Just how well would the following fly with these freedom-flinging pro-voting bigots?
  • Those who choose not to practice freedom of religion should have troops quartered in their home.
  • Those who choose not to assemble shouldn’t allowed to bear arms.
  • Those who skip jury duty shouldn’t petition their government.

Okay, well maybe that last one is a bit hypocritical, but still…

Of course, the abstainers will still have to listen to the clichéd proselytizers, because they’re just exercising their First Amendment Rights, after all.

BONUS: “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes!”

-Benjamin Franklin

This one only annoys me because people like to quote it and then add their own third thing, completely missing the entire point. ‘And taxes’ is the punch line, implying that they are as detrimental and damning as death itself, when clearly they’re just a damned nuisance. To add your own third option, whether to make a point or attempt to be humorous, underplays the quote. Quit it. I’m sick of hearing it.

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