Symposium: The Thought-Terminating Cliché
Antifa, antifa, antifa.
There’s a phenomenon in psychology called “semantic satiation.” It happens when you say a word over and over again so many times that, to you, it starts to lose all meaning and becomes a series of almost nonsensical sounds. Say the word “antifa” enough, and it no longer means anything.
The recent movement of anti-fascists in America and around the world, along with their broad adoption of the term “antifa” to describe themselves, has allowed the word to become decoupled from its original context. Politicians or right-wingers looking to bash the left can invoke “antifa” as a concept that no longer has any relation to anti-fascism. Being anti-anti-fascist would make you sound like a fascist. Being anti-antifa, though? Well, that could mean just about anything, and when conservatives get done with it, it means nothing more than being “against the bad people.” This transformation of antifa from being just a shortening of anti-fascist to a word that means “bad radical leftists” is an example of that most dangerous of rhetorical tropes: the thought-terminating cliché.
Here’s how it’s constructed. First, a word like “antifa,” “leftist” or “socialist” has its use as a noun made the primary use. A noun form can serve as a stand-in for a person or group of people, which subtly essentializes their beliefs. Being “leftist” can more easily become the whole measure of a person if they are treated as “a leftist” in your mind.
This kind of light essentialism is common in our everyday lives, where we meet many people and don’t have a chance to get to know them well, so it requires a second step to become more dangerous. That step is similar to semantic satiation. Right-wing politicians or pundits call a person “a socialist” or a group “antifa” ad nauseam until it has almost no meaning to their audience, except for the one the speaker is very intentionally trying to associate — like, for instance, terrorism.
This is the thought-terminating cliché. It’s designed to dismiss dissent baselessly and eventually stop all discussion that might engage disagreement, the kind our democracy hinges on.
Conservative politicians regularly invoke thought-terminating clichés to describe their liberal opponents as an easy tactic to avoid complicated policy questions for which they might not have the clearest answers. For example, during the 2020 election, Donald Trump several times accused now-President Joe Biden as being “controlled by the radical left.” Similarly, in the debate for the Georgia Senate runoff election, former Georgia Senator Kelly Loeffler called current Georgia Senator Raphael Warnock “radical liberal Raphael Warnock” 13 times over the course of one debate, though the actual meaning of a radical liberal remains intentionally unclear (bonus points to the time she called him “radical liberal” and “a socialist” in the same sentence). In both instances, it doesn’t really matter whether the terms being applied fit or even make sense. It’s about invoking ideas that Republican voters perceive as parts of the evil leftist ideology and associating their opponents with those ideas. Liberal is bad. Left is bad. Radical is bad. Put a handful of those words together, repeat the phrase as often as possible and you can stop all thinking about policy proposals or even the true character of someone.
This isn’t simply a problem on the right. Though it is a far less common phenomenon, leftists sometimes employ “fascist,” “Nazi” or even “Al Queda” as thought-terminating clichés in lieu of attacking various positions, where a more in-depth critique. These thought-terminating clichés are hardly as widespread* as conservative ones, and thus, while worth noting, are not nearly as dangerous to public discourse in the current political moment.
The thought-terminating rhetoric on the left that does damage discourse tends to stem instead from various misguided attempts to attack bigotry. It happens most notably in the way an individual can be branded “a racist” or “a transphobe” for this or that action, removing all nuance from the discussion of what, specifically, they did or why, specifically, it was bad. Instead, the individual is shunned, made the object of the ideas they are expressing, and even at best the structures underlying bigoted opinions are left untouched. Any thoughts or potential for productive dialogue stops at the specific person and their moral impropriety.
J.K. Rowling is an excellent example of this. In June 2020, the Harry Potter creator wrote an essay in response to ongoing backlash over transphobic tweets she had made which doubled down on her transphobic views. The essay led many across the internet to brand her as “a transphobe,” and shun her. Such labeling had the side effect of stopping much of the conversation on the actual transphobic things she did, swapping it for an ultimately pointless back-and-forth over whether fans of the Harry Potter series could continue to consume Rowling’s work in good conscience. Trans YouTubers Jessie Gender and Contrapoints pointed out that this fixation on Rowling’s moral character distracted from any actual critique of her views or their effect on society and made an effort to refocus the conversation on advocating against those views, although news of further Harry Potter properties in development once again derailed the discourse.
It can feel righteous and satisfying to employ a thought-terminating cliché against your political opponent, whether you are on the left or the right. It can occasionally be useful, too, putting those who agree with you into a highly active state of moral outrage, but it’s not going to convince anyone who doesn’t already agree with you — in fact it’s more likely to put them off. Ultimately, this way of conducting rhetoric also damages our ability to think about the issues we discuss. It is quite literally thought-terminating.
When we see complex problems reduced to simple good versus evil issues, we should take note of the myriad of nuances we are losing in confronting the problems in this way. When a right-wing politician or pundit starts repeating some tangle of words like “antifa BLM rioters” ad nauseam, we need to be aware of how they are using that repetition to obscure the movements and ideas they mention. When left-wing Twitter gets in an uproar over the latest instance of celebrity bigotry, we need to make sure to criticize the actions of bigotry themselves, rather than just condemn the celebrity as “a transphobe” or “a racist.” If we allow thought-terminating clichés to continue to dominate our discourse, we will lose our ability to discourse at all.
* It is incredibly easy to find examples of right-wing people recently using thought-terminating clichés. I struggled to find evidence of the left generally perpetuating these, outside of Twitter discourse which, though important, is far from the national debate stage. The dozen or so conservative articles I dug through on this point never cite their sources when they claim this is so widespread. The many comparisons to fascism I did find from liberal or leftist outlets were all articles that dove into the topic and cited their sources. I invite any right-leaning readers to present evidence that this is more of a problem on the left than I have outlined above.