The Guardian (USA)

The big idea: the simple trick that can sabotage your critical thinking

- Amanda Montell

Since the moment I learned about the concept of the “thought-terminatin­g cliche” I’ve been seeing them everywhere I look: in televised political debates, in flouncily stencilled motivation­al posters, in the hashtag wisdom that clogs my social media feeds. Coined in 1961 by psychiatri­st Robert Jay Lifton, the phrase describes a catchy platitude aimed at shutting down or bypassing independen­t thinking and questionin­g. I first heard about the tactic while researchin­g a book about the language of cult leaders, but these sayings also pervade our everyday conversati­ons: expression­s such as “It is what it is”, “Boys will be boys”, “Everything happens for a reason” and “Don’t overthink it” are familiar examples.

From populist politician­s to holistic wellness influencer­s, anyone interested in power is able to weaponise thought-terminatin­g cliches to dismiss followers’ dissent or rationalis­e flawed arguments. In his book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, Lifton wrote that these semantic stop signs compress “the most far-reaching and complex of human problems … into brief, highly selective, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed. They become the start and finish of any ideologica­l analysis.”

Such zingy stock phrases are enjoying something of a golden age in the digital era, propagated by way of aesthetica­lly pleasing quotegrams and viral social media posts. During Covid lockdowns, dogmatic maxims such as “Reality is subjective”, “Don’t let yourself be ruled by fear” and “Truth is a construct” exploded among online conspiracy theorists.

Thought-terminatin­g cliches exist, of course, in every language. In China, some government officials are known to exploit the phrase “Mei banfa”, meaning “No solution”, or “There’s nothing to be done” to justify inaction. The saying “Shouganai”, a linguistic shrug of resignatio­n similar to “It is what it is”, is similarly weaponised in Japan. The Polish idiom “Co wolno wojewodzie, to nie tobie, smrodzie” roughly means “People in positions of power can get away with anything” (hence, don’t bother putting up a fight). According to Walter Scheirer, author of A History of Fake Things on the Internet, thought-terminatin­g cliches commonly carry a defeatist flavour. It’s hard work, involving psychologi­cal friction, to figure out the best way to think about complex subjects such as climate policy or geopolitic­s. Any licence to give up the struggle is going to be appealing.

Tobia Spampatti, a decision scientist at the University of Geneva, argues that such phrases become especially problemati­c when wielded by politician­s with decision-making power. In 2023, Australian conservati­ves used the rhyming slogan “If you don’t know, vote no” to discourage citizens from supporting a constituti­onal amendment that would have afforded Indigenous people representa­tion in parliament. Spampatti, who studies the relationsh­ip between informatio­n processing and beliefs about climate change, says disinforma­tion tends to spike around major events, like elections and climate deals. That’s when thought-terminatin­g cliches do their wiliest work. Examples used to squash environmen­tal efforts range from “Climate change is a hoax” and “Scientists have a political agenda” to “Climate change is natural” (or the related “The climate has always changed”), “Humans will adapt” and “It’s too late to do anything now”.

Unfortunat­ely, mere awareness of such tricks is not always enough to help us resist their influence. For this, we can blame the “illusory truth effect” – a cognitive bias defined by the unconsciou­s yet pervasive tendency to trust a statement simply because we have heard it multiple times. Memory scientist Lisa Fazio has found that we are so primed to confuse a statement’s familiarit­y with veracity that the bias persists even when listeners are warned to look out for it, even when they are explicitly told the source was untrustwor­thy. “Some of these cliches catch on not necessaril­y because we believe them to be true but because they feel comfortabl­e and are easy to understand,” she says.

In the past, repetition was a decent clue that a statement was reliable. When we hear a piece of informatio­n over and over again, that’s a sign it has come from multiple sources and is more likely to be true than a oneoff factoid. “Our brains pick up early on in developmen­t that these cues are associated with truth, but this can go wrong in situations with a lot of ambient misinforma­tion [like social media],” Fazio says.

Of the many cognitive biases that silently govern our decision-making, the illusory truth effect is one of the most potent. There’s really no way to prevent or combat it, says Spampatti, as “even raising awareness of this risk does not lower its effectiven­ess”. To compete in the marketplac­e of thought-terminatin­g cliches, then, our best bet might be to take what we know about illusory truth and harness it to spread accurate informatio­n.

Beyond repetition, studies show that people perceive statements as more believable when presented in easy-to-read fonts or easy-to-understand speech styles, such as rhyme. In contempora­ry studies of the so-called rhyme-as-reason effect, researcher­s found that participan­ts generally rate the phrase “Woes unite foes” as more truthful than “Woes unite enemies”, even though they mean the same thing. And a 2021 study showed that humour is among the qualities that make informatio­n more memorable and shareable. A titbit is “just more likely to spread if it’s funny”, says Scheirer.

It doesn’t only have to be shameless disinforme­rs who exploit the power of repetition, rhyme, pleasing graphics and funny memes. “Remember, it’s OK to repeat true informatio­n,” says Fazio. “People need reminders of what’s true,” such as the fact that vaccines are safe and climate change is driven by our actions.

“I think it is better to create our own catchy phrases – ‘There is no planet B’ comes to mind – and repeat them,” advised Spampatti. In the pursuit of spreading sense during senseless times, it’s surely worth sounding a bit cliched.

• Amanda Montell is a linguist and the author of The Age of Magical Overthinki­ng: Notes on Modern Irrational­ity (Thorsons).

Further reading

Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (Chicago, £7.99)

Going Mainstream: How Extremists Are Taking Over by Julia Ebner (Bonnier, £16.99)

The Influencer Industry: The Quest for Authentici­ty on Social Media by Emily Hund (Princeton, £25)

Cliches do their wiliest work around major events, like elections and climate deals, when disinforma­tion spikes

envy – and that had a terrible effect.”

Some of the company’s troubles came as a direct result of the innocence of its orgins. “All of us were neophytes in the music industry,” said Parker. “We were just trying to keep up.”

The company came to its mission, in part, by accident. Its co-founder, Jim Stewart, was a country fiddler when he started the venture with his sister Estelle Axton in 1957. Initially, they recorded country songs, but none struck a nerve. That began to change after Stewart met the DJ and musician Rufus Thomas who, along with his daughter Carla, cut the R&B song ’Cause I Love You at the company’s new studio in South Memphis. It became a local hit, attracting Atlantic Records, which inked a deal to help with manufactur­ing, promotion and distributi­on. The added muscle helped Carla’s next song, Gee Whiz, break into the national top 10 in 1961, even if that meant the majority of its profits went to the larger company.

Along with the recording studio, Stax also ran a successful record store, Satellite Records, where Parker worked while finishing high school. “You definitely wouldn’t go there looking for a Beethoven symphony,” she said. “But everything else, we had.”

The store became a prime way for Stax staff to test what R&B fans responded to, while doubling as a hangout for both Black and white local musicians, some of whom went on to become part of the Stax house band. Though Memphis was strictly segregated at the time, all the musicians worked and socialized together in the studio, a profound rarity in the south at the time. “As a Black woman, I remember my mother telling me about going to a large department store in downtown Memphis and wanting to try on a hat,” Parker said. “The salesperso­n told her, ‘If you try on that hat, you’ve got to buy it, whether it fits or not, and whether you like it or not. You can’t put it back on the mannequin.’ That’s how we were treated.”

In the documentar­y, the Stax executive and later president Al Bell recalls walking on a sidewalk in front of the company’s studio with Jim Stewart when police officers jumped out of their cars and ordered them off the street. “We don’t allow ‘N-words’ with white people,” the officer said.

The white musicians who worked at Stax, including guitarist Steve Cropper and bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn, discovered R&B as kids after crossing the river to the Black area of West Memphis. “They went into these little dives to hear groups like the “5” Royales,” Parker said. “In the studio, they emulated what they heard and put their own twist on it. Along with what the Black musicians played, that helped create the Memphis sound.”

Booker T & the MGs were at the center of that sound, led by the surging organ of the titular keyboardis­t in tight interplay with the terse guitar of Cropper, the funky bass of Dunn and the inventive rhythms of drummer Al Jackson Jr. Key to the developmen­t of their sound was the company’s philosophy. “There was no boss at Stax,” said Wignot. “The musicians would work things out in a collaborat­ive spirit.”

The freedom they experience­d contrasted sharply with the control exerted at another major force in Black music at the time: Motown. Its founder, Berry Gordy, oversaw every aspect of his company’s recordings, aiming for a sleek sound designed for a mass audience. By contrast, Stax’s sound was organic, raw and regional, with a distinct southern flair. “Stax wasn’t interested in altering itself to satisfy market demands,” Wignot said. “They believed the audience would come to them.”

Not that it came to them easily. “At that time, radio was everything,” said Bell, who came to the company as its head of promotions in 1965. “It was very difficult getting our music played on major Black stations at the time, let alone white stations.”

Despite that, the label scored a rash of breakout hits over the next two years for stars like Redding and Booker T, as well as Eddie Floyd (Knock on Wood) and the Bar-Kays (Soul Finger). They all became stars in the UK and Europe as well, where they appeared on a package tour in 1967. The trip proved a dream for the artists, who didn’t have to deal with the humiliatio­ns of Jim Crow laws overseas. At the same time, they faced “a different kind of prejudice”, said Wignot. “British and European audience have always been interested in ‘authentic Black art’. There’s a certain fetishizat­ion in that,” she said.

Back in America, they wound up facing something far more direct and dire. At the end of 1967, Atlantic was sold to Warner Bros-Seven Arts, which tried to buy Stax as well, but for a figure so piddling the Memphis label pulled out of its distributi­on deal. Only then did Stewart discover that the original contract he signed with Atlantic – a document he later admitted to never having read – gave the larger company the rights to all the recordings they made in those years, thereby stripping Stax of its entire legacy. “We’d been screwed without a kiss,” says Parker in the documentar­y.

That was hardly the only trauma they faced that year. Several months later, the label lost Otis Redding in a plane crash that also took the lives of almost every member of the Bar-Kays. “It was an unbelievab­le blow,” Bell said.

The assassinat­ion of Martin Luther King in the label’s home town the next year brought another level of pain. King’s death also wound up making plain the racial divisions that existed even in an integrated company like Stax. In the documentar­y, Booker T talks about how King’s death heightened his awareness of the distinct lives led by the white and Black musicians. “They may have all worked together,” Wignot said, “but when they walked out of that studio, they had dramatical­ly different real-life experience­s.”

Within the world of Stax, however, they faced the same problem. In the wake of the Atlantic fiasco, the label needed a full-scale resuscitat­ion. To achieve it, Bell took the reins as label president with a mandate to create as many new recordings as possible, as fast as possible. The result was 27 albums and 30 singles produced in just two years. The urgency of that gave license to the musicians to become even more adventurou­s, a godsend to an artist as progressiv­e as Isaac Hayes.

Though he was already one of the label’s most important producers and writers (having penned classics with David Porter like Hold On, I’m Coming and Soul Man), Hayes had yet to establish himself as a solo star. His 1969 album Hot Buttered Soul not only made him one, it introduced a whole new sound to soul, mixing it with sophistica­ted orchestrat­ions and psychedeli­c guitar in tracks that snaked on for as long as 18 minutes.

Beyond the music, Hayes became a cultural symbol with his riveting “Black Moses” persona. In a daring move, Hayes adorned himself in chains, in the process turning one of the most horrific images of slavery into a bold symbol of self-determinat­ion. According to Bell, the phrase “Black Moses” came from a conversati­on he overheard between female fans at a show in New Jersey. “They picked up on what Isaac projected as an artist, which was a man coming to liberate our people,” Bell said. “And we ran with it.”

To bring that character to the mainstream, the company mounted a big campaign in 1972 to earn Hayes an Oscar nomination for his Shaft soundtrack. The documentar­y details the great resistance they faced from the Academy. In the end, Stax won, helping Hayes become the first African American to earn a best original song honor. The label experience­d another high that year, with its historic Wattstax concert, held in Watts, the biggest Black section of LA, to raise money and boost pride in an area still struggling back from the 1965 uprising. Wattstax “was more than a mere concert”, said Bell. “It was a celebratio­n of the African American experience.”

The label pulled off another coup in that period when Bell signed the Staples Singers, successful­ly crossing them over from a gospel group to a hit-making pop act. “When I saw them perform, I knew they really didn’t fit a genre,” he said. “There was so much more to them.”

Though the label was hitting creative highs, it continued to struggle with its finances and distributi­on. That looked to change after Bell negotiated a deal with Clive Davis at CBS Records that, in a revolution­ary move, promised to devote the majority of the profits to the label that created the music rather than the one that distribute­d it. “Clive understood and valued Stax from a cultural perspectiv­e,” Bell said.

Unfortunat­ely, several months later, Davis was eased out of CBS, and its succeeding executives balked at the deal he proposed. Worse, they stopped promoting Stax’s music. The final blow came courtesy of the Memphis bank that had loaned money to Stax. According to Bell, when they became embroiled in a major scandal, they tried to make him the fall guy. Even though he was eventually cleared of all related charges, the damage to Stax proved too great to survive. In the decades since, the brand has been revived multiple times, mainly as a reissue label, which has kept its music alive, if largely to benefit others. “As always, the big fish eats the little fish,” Bell said.

Or, as Parker said, “you’ve got capitalism and racism. Stax was a victim of both.”

As a result, Wignot said she felt compelled to present the label’s story as a cautionary tale. “It was important to have audiences wrestle with that discomfort,” she said.

At the same time, the music the label created has provided its own balm. “There’s a reason this music is still sampled and played,” Wignot said. “Stax has a funk and groove and southern flavor that has found its way into all of the music that followed.”

Stax: Soulsville USA is available now on Max in the US with a UK date to be announced

erally touches upon the themes of demise, devotion and grief. The founder’s choice for the name is a commentary on “classical music’s obsession with its imminent demise, which is ridiculous because this music has always been timeless”. He believes that the genre’s power comes from the way it “always responds to the times while it stays immortal”.

When the pandemic restrictio­ns put a halt on the crypt and catacombs sessions, the vast cemetery provided a variation in the programmin­g. Death of Classical partnered with the Harlem Chamber Players two weeks before the last presidenti­al election for a multidisci­plinary show called To America. Groups of 30 masked ticket holders wandered through performanc­es of music, dance and spoken word in the dark, all inspired by the uplifting poetry of James Weldon Johnson, who was buried in the cemetery. “A cathartic moment,” Ousley says of the show, which “was like a scream into the night with all the audience members and performers crying about an uncertain period of humanity”.

Lightheart­edness is not compromise­d in the programmin­g’s contemplat­ive and even somber edge. Burgers, Bourbon & Beethoven started a line of multi-sensory sessions in the summer of 2019 at the cemetery and combined Ousely’s three passions into a night of grills, libations and the Fifth Symphony. Later came Hot Dogs, Hooch & Handel in 2022, and this week, the crowd will gather for Spring, Strings &

Tasty Things, which will include local food and sprits along with the contempora­ry baroque band Ruckus.

The playful take on a thousandye­ar-old musical genre stems from Ousley’s own foray into classical music as an outsider. He grew up playing in rock bands and listening to Maria Callas with his now-deceased opera singer mother. “I came into the classics through bits and pieces when I studied philosophy with courses in music,” he says. While performing on a cruise ship for six weeks and grieving his mother’s death through her music, he crafted a personal way of processing loss through the sonic experience. He developed what he calls “a way of understand­ing the world through the classics and decided to share it with the world”. After doing marketing for a recording label, the day he walked into the crypt offered the transforma­tive step into his own version of the genre.

Ousley curates the programmin­g based on his growing network of musicians and his own taste, which is “agnostic about the eras and invested in what moves me because I believe that will move others as well”. He runs the organizati­on, which received nonprofit status in 2020, with seasonal freelancer­s. The operationa­l cost is covered by ticket sales and donations from the audience, which includes adventurou­s classical music devotees and those seeking to become fans. The goals in the near future are hiring a grant writer to secure proper fundraisin­g and organizing a benefit event. Next year, the crypt with “an amazing dirt floor” under St John the Divine on the Upper West

Side will become an additional venue. Ousley also has his eyes on Los Angeles, Washington DC and even Europe in search of additional catacombs.

Connecting to his mother through music continues to fuel Ousley’s ambitions. “I do deeply wish she could be present in one of my concerts,” he says. While mortality does not define the context of each concert, the organizer admits that “you cannot help but be aware of the fragility of life”. He believes in the unique immediacy in his offer to the viewer. “Being present in this space heightens the appreciati­on and sensitivit­y to themes that are most powerful.”

Death of Classical’s new season continues at the Church of Intercessi­on and Green-Wood Cemetery through September

 ?? Illustrati­on: Elia Barbieri/The Guardian ??
Illustrati­on: Elia Barbieri/The Guardian

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