[W]e have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.
— George Orwell, The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell
The Cowardice of Cliches
According to legend, when George Will signed up to become a syndicated columnist in the 1970s, he asked his friend William F. Buckley, Jr. — the founder of National Review and a columnist himself — "How will I ever write two columns a week?" Buckley responded (I'm paraphrasing), "Oh it will be easy. At least two things a week will annoy you, and you'll write about them."
Buckley was right. Annoyance is an inspiration, aggravation a muse. That which gets your blood up, also gets the ink — or these days, pixels — flowing. Show me an author without passion for what he holds to be the truth and I will show you either a boring writer or someone who misses a lot of deadlines, or both. Nothing writes itself, and what gets the writer to push that boulder uphill is more often than not irritation with those saying wrong things righteously.
Which brings me to this book. There's a kind of argument-that-isn't-an-argument that vexes me. I first started to notice it on university campuses. I've spoken to a lot of college audiences. Often, I will encounter an earnest student, much more serious looking than the typical hippie with open-toed shoes and a closed mind. During the Q&A session after my speech he will say something like "Mr. Goldberg, I may disagree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."
Then he will sit down, and the audience will applaud. Faculty will nod proudly at this wiser-than-his-years hatchling under their wings. What a glorious moment for everybody. Blessed are the bridge builders.
My response? Who gives a rat's ass?
First of all, my right to speak never was in doubt. Indeed, I'm usually paid to speak. Besides, I've given my speech already and we're in Q&A time: Shouldn't you have told me this beforehand? Second, the kid is almost surely lying. He'll take a bullet for me? Really?
Cliches like these are a way to earn bravery on the cheap, defending principles you haven't thought through or perhaps only vaguely support. Or, heck, maybe he really would leap on a grenade so I could finish talking about how stupid high-speed rail is. But it still doesn't matter, because mouthing these sorts of cliches is a way to avoid arguments, not make them. Imagine a defendant is on the stand. The prosecutor peppers the accused murderer with questions: "Is this your chain saw?" "Where were you on the night of the fourteenth?" "How can you explain the victim's foot being in your freezer?"
Now imagine the defendant responds, "Sir, I may disagree with your line of questioning, but I will defend to the death your right to ask me these things."
The prosecutor, if he's not a complete idiot, will say, "Stop trying to change the subject and answer my questions."
One last point about "I may disagree with you but I'll defend to the death your right to say it": The implication is not only that the person saying this is brave but also that we live in a society where such bravery might be required. It suggests that speech is so imperiled that bloodshed may be called for. Many people think that's how the phrase was born, that they're echoing the heroism of some forgotten general or martyr willing to sacrifice himself for the liberty of others. But they're wrong.
The phrase is usually attributed to Voltaire, though he didn't say it. It was a historian's paraphrasing of Voltaire's attitude, written more than a century after Voltaire's death. And even his attitude wasn't all that sincere. According to S. G. Tallentyre's The Friends of Voltaire, the quote traces itself back to a hullaballoo over a book by the French utilitarian philosopher Claude Adrien Helvetius. The book, De l'Espirit, argued that people behave the way they do out of a desire to avoid pain or feel pleasure. Or something. Regardless, everyone hated the book, including Voltaire (who took offense at what he considered to be the author's insufficient praise of him). De l'Espirit was essentially ignored until the dauphin, the king's son, read it. He really hated it. Parliament ended up banning it. The tome was even publicly burned. Like a 1920s book that could catapult its sales by being Banned in Boston!, De l'Espirit became a sensation, translated into every language imaginable, precisely because it had been censored. And, just as suddenly, Helvetius became a celebrity, his salon instantly fashionable.
"What the book could never have done for itself, or for its author, persecution did for them both," writes Tallentyre. "The men who had hated it, and had not particularly loved Helvetius, flocked round him now. Voltaire forgave him all injuries, intentional or unintentional. 'What a fuss about an omelette!' [Voltaire] had exclaimed when he heard of the burning. How abominably unjust to persecute a man for such an airy trifle as that! 'I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,' was his attitude now."
So it is an expression born in glibness — defined by vanity, not courage — and it remains so to this day.
This is only one example of the problem. I started to notice that the same thing happens in writing, on TV, in books; people invoke these cliches as placeholders for arguments not won, ideas not fully understood. At the same time, the same sorts of people cavalierly denounce far more thought-out positions because they're too "ideological." Indeed, in America, we train people to be skeptical of ideology. College students in particular are quick to object with a certain gotcha tone: "That sounds like an ideological statement."
Such skepticism doesn't bother me. Indeed, I encourage it. The problem is that while our radar is great at spotting in-bound ideological statements, cliches sail right through. People will say "It is better that ten men go free than one innocent man go to jail" and then stop talking, as if they've made an argument simply by saying that. They will take the slippery slope at face value. They'll say "Diversity is strength," as if it means something, and "Violence never solved anything," as if that were not only plausible but so true that no further explication is required.
"We are only as free as the least free among us" they'll proclaim, misquoting Martin Luther King, Jr., or Elie Wiesel, or was it Captain Jean-Luc Picard? But of course, this isn't even remotely true. It is a very nice thing to say. It's a noble thing to try to live by. But it's in no meaningful sense true. Rather, it is the sort of thing people assert in the hopes that it will win them uncontested ground in an argument.
Sometimes the problem is simply lazy thinking. But in other cases the lazy thinking merely creates the vulnerability for radical thinking. Some incredibly ideological ideas simply ride into your head like the dream spelunkers in the movie Inception — setting up, working their way through your programming — all because they're wrapped in the protective coating of cliches.
From The Tyranny of Cliches: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas by Jonah Goldberg. Copyright 2012 by Jonah Goldberg. Excerpted by permission of Sentinel, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.