Few people would disagree that we are, more than any other time in two generations, living in a divided society, where politics have pulled people to the poles and no one seems to be able to talk across the widening chasm because we can’t even agree on the definition of the words we use. Dates, dinners, class reunions, and family get-togethers are regularly ruined because certain words are likely to lead to raised voices – words like taxes, business, wealth, duty, speech, rights, life, choice, patriotism and government, that bring with them whole provinces of context that seem ready to secede and fight over their borders.
National Review contributing editor Jonah Goldberg has been performing a service for several years now with his online columns and books like Liberal Fascism, which detail the way the liberal viewpoint has come into ascendancy in the media, academia and, by extension, into the ways in which we argue. With The Tyranny of Cliches, his latest book, Goldberg goes a step further into describing how, when conservatives sit down to debate with liberals, they’re often playing at a gamed table, and give advantages to their opponents without knowing it, simply by accepting so many premises that are neither logical nor true.
The greatest service Goldberg does with his new book is a debunking of a list of famous clichés that have become truisms and crutches that, pulled away, leave so many liberal arguments in ruins. Notably:
“Diversity is strength.” The sort of phrase that’s usually followed by a self-satisfied smile, but which logic renders absurd. Following its prescription to its ultimate end, Goldberg writes, “the National Basketball Association would be made vastly more diverse if a rigid quota of midgets and one-legged point guards was imposed upon it.” In actual practice, blessed diversity is usually prescribed only when it’s certain that diverse individuals will faithfully enforce a single, homogenous viewpoint.
“Social Darwinism.” The term was supposed to have been coined by British sociologist Herbert Spencer, who’s been described as a twisted monster who gave birth to a cruel philosophy supposedly beloved of conservatives. Even the Oxford English Dictionary describes it as being “used to justify political conservatism, imperialism, and racism.” The only problem is that Spencer never used the term, never described himself as a Social Darwinist, and inspired no movement that ever described itself with the term.
Oddly enough, secular liberals love to profess an almost religious veneration for Darwin, but insist that Spencer is to blame for perverting his ideas with his concept of “survival of the fittest.” Unfortunately, Darwin did use the term, substituting it for “natural selection” in later editions of his work. And it’s been progressives, as Goldberg is only the latest person to point out, who were the real fans of eugenics in the first half of the 20th century. Spencer, it seems, has been made the official scapegoat for what was once a liberal concept.
“Slippery slope.” It’s the mechanism that will always lead some mild legislation to some nightmarish future dystopia, and it generally gets abused by those on the right and the left. It’s like the frog that gets boiled to death when you turn up the heat on it while it swims in a pan of tepid water. Unfortunately scientific tests have proved that the frogs do, in fact, get out before they’re even simmering, and humans tend to react with even more agency than frogs. The overuse of the slippery slope is just another case of people letting their metaphor do more work than it can rhetorically handle.
“Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.” Thomas Jefferson said that, or so we’re told. The only problem is that he didn’t, but that hasn’t stopped it from being used relentlessly to cloak the most vicious attacks on legitimately elected governments in an unearned glow of high-minded purpose. As Goldberg points out, it’s supposed to ennoble the dissenter – until that point when they disagree with you, at which point dissent magically turns itself back into the ill-tempered ranting of cranks.
Dissent, in any case, has had its purpose cheapened, and now describes almost any break from orthodoxy, even when it rebels against common sense and decency. “Jack Kevorkian is treated like a Thomas More figure by HBO,” Goldberg writes, “when the reality is that he was simply a ghoul who enjoyed getting attention by killing desperate people.”
There are a dozen examples like this in Goldberg’s book, so useful that you wish a companion chapbook was available so you could have them at hand the next time another one of these clichés is lobbed into a debate with the usual smug flourish. Once you finish smiling at how neatly the author dispenses with so many of these flimsy articles of faith, though, you’re suddenly struck with the daunting task ahead – arguing people not just out of their biases, but well past the beginning of the argument, to a point long before their minds were made up.
Since we no longer teach rhetoric or logic in our schools, the process of picking apart the poor thinking, erroneous presumptions and overworked metaphors will probably just amplify the sullen resentment you’d expect from someone who expected to get a high five for their flip remark, only to get shouldered into remedial history and debate prep. Even media professionals get testy when they’re forced to back up the sound bite train, and editors and TV producers are unlikely to encourage this sort of verbal kendo when they’re assigning op-eds or programming five minute segments on cable news. It’s a polarized world we live in, to be sure, but Goldberg shows that what keeps us apart isn’t what we know but what we think we know.
Rick McGinnis is The Interim’s Amusements columnist. He blogs at whoseculture.blogspot.com.