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By now we ought to know that below cliche is often the deepest sincerity. And that below what can only be called “non-cliche,” by which I mean words and deeds of originality, is often the fumbling of the insincere.
This was made evident to me once again after the Las Vegas shooting. Throughout my social media channels I came across a common and cliche response which read, “sending thoughts and prayers.” The next day I encountered several reactions to these responses which criticized them for their seemingly trivial and laissez-faire approach to a tragedy which took over 50 lives.
The most creative of these complaints took the form of a game. By clicking on a link you became a player and were instructed to click two buttons over and over again. The buttons were labeled “Thoughts,” and “Prayers.” When the game starts, a number in the middle of the screen begins to increase exponentially indicating the number of deaths in the USA by gun violence. Ostensibly, by clicking the buttons the player is working to stop that number from rising. But, predictably, no matter how many times a player clicks one button or the other, the deaths continue to rise.
The obvious criticism is that sending thoughts and prayers is ineffective and the deeper and more subversive critique is that sending thoughts and prayers is cliche and easy—like clicking a button. Though witty, the critique falls flat in both instances.
The surface of the critique is hard to dismiss and seems undeniably true. Few people (religious or nonreligious) will stand by thoughts and prayers as a method for limiting gun violence. But whether or not thoughts and prayers are effective at limiting gun violence is nearly impossible to prove or disprove due to the fact that both thoughts and prayers are intensely private and unobservable. So while it is commonly believed that thoughts and prayers are ineffective at generating any tangible change by both the religious and empiricists, neither group of people ought to be so convinced—the religious for their religion’s sake and the empiricists for scientific purity.
By admitting that the effectuality of thoughts and prayers will forever remain unprovable, the first part of the critique is still not entirely resolved. The heart of this first criticism is not that thoughts and prayers are ineffectual, but that those who are sending thoughts and prayers ought to be doing something else, something more effective. What that more effective task might be remains uncertain. I have sincere doubts that calling a senator would prove particularly effective at accomplishing anything. With issues of the state our vote, our voice, our phone call, is almost always ineffectual. Perhaps donating blood is another “better” alternative, but there is no evidence that the people sending thoughts and prayers are not also donating blood. It is certainly not a zero sum game.
The surface of the complaint remains dull and vague and harmless as there is no proof that thoughts and prayers are ineffective or damaging and nothing but assumptions that people who send thoughts and prayers are not in fact more engaged in the tasks of politicking, money lending, and blood donating. But the second and more concrete aspect of the critique is the most deleterious.
The criticism at a lower level is not that thoughts and prayers require nothing of us in a physical sense but that it requires nothing of us in an intellectual and emotional sense. So The problem, in short, is that the phrase is cliche. The idea that thoughts and prayers are easy, a button that is clicked, a cliche that allows the speaker to avoid dealing with the real horror of the situation, exposes a noxious attitude towards cliche that must be earnestly addressed.
To call something cliche in the modern world is among the cardinal condemnations. We are okay being quirky, bizarre, macabre, grotesque, just so long as we are not cliche. The peculiar power of the claim that something is cliche is that it requires no evidence. If a thing is cliche, the fact should be self evident. To explain why a certain phrase or plot or response comes off as cliche is counter productive. It is either overwrought, in which case a careful observer is certain to notice, or it is not. To agree or not is similar to laughing at a joke: either you get the reference or you don’t. To claim cliche, is to make a claim about one’s own cultural awareness, and to agree or not is a matter of taste.
This makes the term cliche particularly slanderous. It doesn’t just dismiss something as derivative, but manifestly so. It claims consensus from the beginning. The sin of being cliche is not a bad choice or a misstep. An artist might choose to make his subject’s face blue, and if the color proves dull it may be a mistake but the intention was still to paint with blue. But no modern artist tries to be cliche. Cliche is not a mistake but an accident. It is unacknowledged because it is unknown to the artist. And it is this feeling of exposure, like being caught with your zipper down, that has caused us to overlook the unique power of the cliche. A power which I believe is particularly useful at an event like the Vegas shooting.
We do not find children dull, even though their language is composed entirely of cliche. And we do not grow tired of hello greetings, have a nice day farewells. In Arabic the word for good morning literally means morning of light. But no one will mistake that for your meaning. Just as in English no one will look to the sky if you ask what’s up. The literal meaning of the phrase is entirely absent. And it is the absence that allows for a separate communication to take place.
Take a common business interaction which begins like this:
How are you?
Doing well. How are you?
This exchange of phrase is seldom understood to be an attempt at probing into your current life satisfaction. It is generally used as a way to acknowledge that you have a life, a wife, children, mortgage payments, secret griefs, sorrows, stresses. It’s an acknowledgement that each interlocutor is only interacting with part of the other, the particular part that is suited for the business at hand.
But in this moment of cliche, a moment where no information is shared, instead a profound acknowledgment takes place. Both parties nod to the depth of the other, and agree tacitly that they will continue doing whatever business they are about without venturing below the surface. Such is the power of the cliche. The absence of specific meaning allows for a deep and often profound presence.
To be cliche in this sense requires no invention. If you were to put a spin on an established cliche, for example if you were to say, “How are you and your beautiful wife,” it would disrupt the power of the cliche. Perhaps for something better, but undoubtedly something different. Even adding a name such as “How are you, Mike,” moves the meaning towards precisely what is said rather than what isn’t. “Doing well how are you,” ceases to be an adequate response. The universal is replaced by the specific. Your specific life, your specific wife.
In many cases it is this invention that sparks life into conversation. A specific name, remembering someone’s wife, these things make the conversation more personal, enjoyable, and fulfilling. But there are also times when the imposition of original phrasing exposes the hubris of the individual.
I recently found myself contemplating what I might say in a text to a friend whose father had just had a stroke. I thought through a series of possible responses. Wanting my response to be received as genuine. I wrote a rather beautifully composed epigram but ultimately discarded it because it contained too much of myself. Beautiful phrasing brought attention away from his grief and towards my invention and I didn’t want the message to draw attention to me but to convey sympathy unadulterated by my own turn of phrase. And so I settled with “We’ll be praying for you.” A cliche that could have just as easily been replaced with “Sending thoughts and prayers.”
Perhaps I did this because I have been on the other end of the equation as well. When my wife and I had a miscarriage, we received many texts full of beautifully consistent cliches. “We’ll pray for you.” “Thoughts and prayers.” “Let us know if we can help.” And it was these hollow words that allowed for the purest resonance. What is said is not said by an individual but by a people, by a community, by a nation. In the phrase is heard a million voices, like particles of water over rock, the flow of a river. And we felt the prayers, like a school of fish in perfect synchrony, buoying us to the surface.
It is at tragedies that we turn to cliche, when we cannot speak our own words. When to speak alone is to break the harmony. We fall into the worn old phrases, the beautiful cliches which we’ve primed our whole lives, emptied out the excess, so that it could be filled in this moment.