Quote of the Day: Robert Lifton on the “thought terminating cliche”

Thought terminating cliches?

You know, like the ones that Americans hear weekly from Rush Limbaugh and Fox News.

Here’s the psychologist Robert Lifton, from his book, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism :

“The language of the totalist environment is characterized by the thought-terminating cliché. The most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed. These become the start and finish of any ideological analysis.”

Here are two examples of thought terminating cliches:

  • Global warming is just a way for liberals to get us all driving small cars.
  • Swine flu is being hyped by liberals to promote international cooperation and so chip away at the sovereignty of the United States.

Thought terminating cliches are especially suitable for compressed communication mediums like Twitter.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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4 Responses to Quote of the Day: Robert Lifton on the “thought terminating cliche”

  1. Jared K says:

    I think folks of all ideological stripes resort to the thought terminating cliche–not just American conservatives. That said (so as not to resort to such a cliche myself I suppose), I think American conservatives are among the most prolific users of sound-byte philosophy.

    I am so frustrated by the continual lack of depth of mainstream conservative ideology. Just last night, my wife said to me “I think if I hear one more Republican throw out the sound byte that Obama is advocating a pure ‘socialized medicine’ or that Obama’s plan will ‘put bureaucrats in between you and your doctor’ I will snap and go on a rampage.”

    You can’t even had a discussion of disagreement with these people. They are right because they are right because they are right. Who gives a damn about complexities and difficult issues?

    Although I am still a relatively conservative religious person, I can sincerely understand why people loathe fundamentalist Christians as they do. I know it better now that I see what many of these same folks resort to in political discourse.

    Rush says it, I believe it, that settles it?

  2. Pingback: The Big Picture « Prometheus Unbound

  3. santitafarella says:


    Sometimes a taut observation can cut through a lot of blue pipe smoke. I guess the distinction that I would make is whether the observation stimulates and encourages thought, or whether the observation functions as a way to shut down thought. Another way of putting it: Does the taut expression of an observation give people permission to be satisfied with that thought as a kind of punctuation mark—a period or exclamation point—for stopping all further thought, and thus to give an issue no further thought?

    Also, I would ask whether an observation is made as part of a dialogue—or whether it is characterized by insincerity—as a form of faux dialogue. I want to know if the “conversation” is one way.

    I think a lot of people use religious and political affiliation as a way to “outsource” their opinions (so that they don’t have to think about it themselves). What people are “buying” from their ministers and radio hosts are comfy cliches that reinforce prejudices and can substitute for the effort of individual thought. They make summary “sense” of the world so that you don’t have to.


  4. Pingback: Twitter Meets the Rhetorical Wars over Religion? Are You a Clicheatheist or a Clichetheist? « Prometheus Unbound

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