I have been thinking a lot about why it bothers me so much when intelligent people - people whom I otherwise respect - start repeating every nice-sounding platitude they see or hear. The problem with platitudes is that - like the bible, astrology, or Nostradamus' predictions - there is such a huge volume of mutually-contradicting, yet truthy-sounding material that one can cherry-pick just what one wants in order to prove or justify almost any belief, desire, or attitude. However, platitudes are even worse because of their brevity, vagueness, and tendency to appear entirely out of context, thus allowing any one platitude to serve diametrically opposed views.
For example: "Never forget" could mean
- "Always remember to honor the dead and the contributions they have made."
- "Don't forget what we did to make so many people hate us and try to treat people better in the future."
- "Never forget that those people are evil and we must always hate them and try to eliminate or abuse them at every opportunity."
Or it could just mean to stop misplacing your car keys.
So, Person A could spout off with some platitude or repeat some quote out of context believing it means Thing One. But when Person B reads it they feel it justifies Thought Two. And because the platitude was repeated by someone they like or respect, Person B feels even more justified in in their belief, regardless of how irrational that belief may actually be. Because people rarely delve into what they actually mean by this quote or that platitude, they can hold diametrically, even fatally divergent opinions as to its meaning and never even know it.
Perhaps this lack of actual communication is why platitudes have seen such a resurgence as of late. People are afraid of conflict these days. It is rude to disagree with your friend. It is rude to disagree with almost anyone to their face. So we stage protests and hold signs covered with platitudes that mean nothing because they could mean anything. Yet almost no one actually goes to their neighbor and explains what they think said platitude means and what we should do about it in a manner that creates more understanding rather than less. Everyone appears to "just get along" while, seething just beneath the surface, is a level of distrust for "all those people who disagree with us - whoever they are" that likely hasn't existed since the Sixties - yet another era filled with slogans and signs.
This trend disturbs me even more when participated in by my friends who are atheists. We atheists claim to be rational beings, skilled at critical thinking. But all of that seems to go out the window when a truthy or pithy platitude is waved before some people's eyes. I firmly believe this is a dangerous habit to get into. Those who eschew formal religion but turn to platitudes are merely exchanging one amorphous, irrational, believe anything you want, religious-esque system for another and exchanging an imaginary friend for the ever-ethereal "truthyness."
The contents of this post is Copyright © 2011 by Grant Sheridan Robertson.