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A thought-terminating cliché (also known as a semantic stop-sign, a thought-stopper, bumper sticker logic or cliché thinking) is a form of loaded language, commonly used to quell cognitive dissonance.[1][2][3][4][5][6] Depending on context in which a phrase (or cliché) is used, it may actually be valid and not constitute as thought-terminating, it does constitute as such when its application intends to dismiss dissent or justify fallacious logic.[7] Its only function is to stop an argument from proceeding further, in other words "end the debate with a cliche... not a point."[2] The term was popularized by Robert Jay Lifton in his 1961 book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, who called the use of the cliché, along with "loading the language" as; "The language of Non-thought."[1]


Origin and definitionsEdit

R.J. Lifton's definition
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. They become the start and finish of any ideological analysis.

Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, Chapter 16, The Older Generation: Robert Chao (1961)

The earliest recorded definition of the term was published in Robert Jay Lifton's book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism in 1961, wherein he was describing the structure of language used by the Communist Party of China, defining the term as; "...the start and finish of any ideological analysis." It was listed as the sixth (of eight) totalistic themes.[1] The term is written under the sixth (of eight) criteria for thought reform 'Loading the Language', of which various authors and scholars also consider the term to be a form of loaded language.[1][8][9]

Charles "Chaz" Bufe in his book Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure? (1997) broadly put the use of the cliché as "...thought-stopping phrases (that) include any use of the language, especially repeated phrases, to ward off forbidden thoughts." in describing his interactions with the Alcoholics Anonymous aid movement.[8] Author, show-host and doctor Robert "Bo" Bennett described the term as a substitute for "...a person's actual position or argument with a distorted, exaggerated, or misrepresented version of the position of the argument." in his 2017 book Logically Fallacious, along with a proposed logical form of the cliché; "Person 1 makes claim Y. Claim Y sounds catchy. Therefore, claim Y is true."[7]

In the Southern California law review, Volume 51, Part 1, it describes the use of such clichés as " capture the vehicles of thought and communication; "Doctrine over reality" (which includes the rewriting of history and reinterpretation of one's past)" and as a property of 'ideological totalists.'[10]

Exception of the criteriaEdit

Bennett explains that exceptions are made to the use of phrases, that would otherwise be considered thought-terminating, if they are used in addition to evidence or strong claims.[7]

General examplesEdit

  • "It is what it is." - Adds no value to any debate, its intent is to disengage. "Why is it so?"[2]
  • "Lies of the devil." - Used as a response to any fact that threatens the integrity of an individual/group.[11]
  • "Stop thinking so much." - A literal request to stop any debate.[12]
  • "It's all good." - In the event that the situation is not in fact in a good state, yet you want people to stop analysing it, say this.[13]
  • "Here we go again." - Implies that the topic has been debated about too frequently and is never going to reach a conclusion, so you may as well stop the debate.[14]
  • "A chain is only as strong as its weakest link." - While this example is supposed to be taken figuratively, it might be used to imply that a team is no better than the least productive member of that team, which is not true.[7]
  • "It's not a religion; it is a relationship." - Intends to divert criticism, and is considered to be an assertion absent of any evidence or reasons that rely on one's confusion. "Tell me why it's not a religion. Tell me what a relationship is exactly."[7]
  • "You are too negative" or "You can never admit you're wrong." In both of these cases, either one agrees, in which case one is discredited for being too negative or unreliable, or one disagrees, thereby illustrating the very point one is trying to deny. This is a subtle form of a complex question, as the very act of replying assumes an implicit argument. [15].

Criticism of useEdit


A major criticism made by various journalists is that the use of the cliché tends to halt debate and restrict/censor freedom of speech, and it tends to be synonymous with language that would be utilized by totalitarian states as Lifton originally identified with Communist China. Dictator Adolf Hitler of Nazi Germany is remarked to have employed such clichés and platitudes to justify his actions prior and during the events of World War II for example.[16] Historical personalities listed to also have used such clichés include; Joseph Stalin of Soviet-Russia, Ruhollah Khomeini of the Iranian Revolution, Pol Pot of the former communist country Democratic Kampuchea and Mao Zedong of the Communist Party of China.[17]

David Volodzko via The Diplomat in 2015 characterised China's justification for persecuting Tibetans, Uyghurs, Falun Gong, artists, journalists (including Liu Xiaobo), summed up as "for security reasons" as a thought-terminating cliché, going on to say "that’s every bit as vapid as “God moves in a mysterious way” or “support our troops.” What it really means is that the Party is more important than the people."[18] In an article published by Vice, Lee Zachariah determined the language used by the Australian Government in regards to the casualties, including one involved death, as a result of the Christmas Island detention centre protests, often included terms like "boat people" and "illegals" that referred to the asylum seekers, implying that the act of coming by boat is heinous, whilst "illegals" "...says that their very nature is defined by being illegal, despite the fact that seeking asylum is not illegal."[19]

At the best of times, this is a tactic designed to stop us thinking of them as human beings. At the worst, it is a way of deflecting blame or the sympathy for the death of a person by gently suggesting that the victim had it coming.

— Lee Zachariah, Vice - "Christmas Island and the Language of Death"

Michael Krämer via The Guardian noted that the use of the slogan (considered a cliché) "there is no alternative," said by the likes of Margaret Thatcher and Angela Merkel, is used intentionally to push their political agenda.[20] Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign was criticized for its use of clichés, or "Bumper Sticker Logic" as Medium journalist Dinfa Gwazi and artist Henry Rollins referred to it as, citing the phrases; "Build The Wall" and "Make America Great Again".[13][21] A major topic in America where the cliché is seen and criticized in is the US gun debate, often utilised in defiance of proposed gun control laws, with one common phrase being "guns don't kill people, people kill people".[22][23][24]

Social politicsEdit

Journalist James Bloodworth indicated that political correct culture has led to the assumption that opinions can only be valid if "the issue in question directly affects the person making the argument" and mentions the common use of the thought-terminating words: "Speaking as a..." implying that it no longer matters what you think, what matters more what you are, as if that is an achievement itself.[25] Breda O'Brien writes that the over-use of the term "homophobic", when applied to any opinion that supporters of same-sex marriage disagree with, becomes a cliché used to dismiss such opinions, expressing; "However, given that we do not live in a totalitarian regime, all it achieves is to undermine the effectiveness of the term where there is real anti-gay discrimination. It becomes merely a bullying tactic."[26] Author Christine Douglass-Williams also mentions that the term "Islamophobic" is also applied in familiar fashion to yield the same results as how O'Brien describes homophobia.[27]

The concept of toxic masculinity has been labelled as a cliché by Larissa Nolan of The Times, stating that "Few people question what it is, let alone its existence." and going on to say "Effectively, it means the only acceptable man is one who behaves like a woman."[28] In 2016, Stella Morabito from The Federalist wrote an article addressing the criticism against Jordan B. Peterson regarding his refusal to use transgender pronouns, wherein she categorised the "pronoun protocols" of gender identity under Lifton's "Loaded language" criterion.[29]


An example of the cliché in use provided by Chaz Bufe is "the admonition given to Catholic schoolchildren to recite the Hail Mary or rosary to ward off "Impure thoughts." The use of repetitive chanting by the Hare Krishnas serves the same thought-stopping purpose."[8] Author Ann Morisy criticized the Christian Church for their uses of such clichés coinciding with their doctrines that intentionally reduce the possibility of dialogue, stating that failure to move beyond them risks falling prey " a new version of gnosticism." along with alienating those not of the faith.[12] Scientology has also been criticized for using protocols, language and lexicons that utilize thought-terminating clichés to condition its members or to reaffirm a confirmation bias, which makes it difficult for members to think "outside the box".[30][31] The Guardian journalist Jonny Scaramanga mentions that when certain members of Islam label something Haram (sinful), that employs the use of the tactic since it states that something is forbidden and "There is no need for any more consideration of whether it is bad."[32]


The use of slogans is often considered to be a form of the cliché; "Brief, reductive labels you can stick on things, and which end thought on the subject."[32]

Art and mediaEdit

An article published by Gamasutra mentions that, during the debate regarding on whether or not pornographic games should be available on the Steam market place, that simply calling such games as porn is "thought-terminating" as it doesn't progress the debate.[33]

Fictional applicationsEdit

  • George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four - The totalitarian state Oceana implements Newspeak, a "pared-down version of English in which 'dangerous' words like 'freedom' no longer exists." Kathleen Taylor suggests in a case study that the words that remain as a result of the diminishing of the English language are ideologically loaded, and are "...clear examples of Lifton's thought-terminating clichés."[9][16]
  • Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World - The "Utopian" Society uses thought-terminating clichés in a more conventional manner, most notably in regard to the drug soma as well as modified versions of real-life platitudes, such as, "A doctor a day keeps the jim-jams away."[16]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c d Lifton, Robert J. (1989) [1961]. "Chapter 16, The Older Generation: Robert Chao". Thought reform and the psychology of totalism: A study of brainwashing in China (reprint ed.). Google Books: UNC Press. p. 429. ISBN 9780807842539.
  2. ^ a b c "Don't Read the Comments: 10 Logical Fallacies in the Comment Stream". Business 2 Community. Retrieved 2019-05-09.
  3. ^ Jenicek, Milos (2011). Medical error and harm : understanding, prevention, and control. New York: Productivity Press/CRC Press. ISBN 9781439836958. OCLC 680038936.
  4. ^ Chiras, Daniel D. (1992), "Teaching Critical Thinking Skills in the Biology & Environmental Science Classrooms", The American Biology Teacher, 54 (8): 464–468, doi:10.2307/4449551
  5. ^ Chiras, Daniel D. (1992), "Teaching Critical Thinking Skills in the Biology & Environmental Science Classrooms", The American Biology Teacher, 54 (8): 464–468, doi:10.2307/4449551
  6. ^ Yudkowsky, Eliezer (24 Aug 2007). "Semantic Stopsigns". Less Wrong. Retrieved 26 Aug 2018.
  7. ^ a b c d e Bennett, Bo (2017). Logically Fallacious: The Ultimate Collection of Over 300 Logical Fallacies. Google Books: ISBN 1456607375.
  8. ^ a b c Bufe, Charles (1 December 1997) [1991]. "9 - Is AA a Cult?". Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure? (2nd, revised ed.). Google Books: See Sharp Press. ISBN 1884365752.
  9. ^ a b Taylor, Kathleen (27 July 2006) [2004]. "The birth of a word". Brainwashing: The Science of Thought Control (illustrated, reprint ed.). Google Books: OUP Oxford. pp. 17, 21. ISBN 0199204780.
  10. ^ Law Center, University of Southern California (1978). "Southern California Law Review, Volume 51, 1977-78". Southern California Law Review. 51: 68 – via HeinOnline.
  11. ^ Martin, Paul (1993). Cult proofing your kids. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Pub. House. ISBN 0310537614. OCLC 26973667.
  12. ^ a b Morisy, Ann (2009). Bothered and bewildered: enacting hope in troubled times. London: Continuum. ISBN 9781441163929. OCLC 680017855.
  13. ^ a b Gwazi, Dinfa (2017-05-20). "The Rise of The Thought Terminating Cliche & Bumper Sticker Logic in The Era of Trump". Medium. Retrieved 2019-05-10.
  14. ^ Clampitt, Phillip G.; Williams, M. Lee (Winter 2007), "Decision Downloading", MIT Sloan Management Review, vol. 48 no. 2, retrieved October 25, 2016
  15. ^ Norquist, Richard (July 13, 2018). "Complex Question Fallacy". ThoughtCo. Retrieved 2019-07-20.
  16. ^ a b c Soni, I.M. (August 2017). "Cliches are like base coins". Alive. p. 88.
  17. ^ Esomba, Steve N. (2013). Advertising and the Spread of Business, Democracy and Knowledge. p. 41. ISBN 9781471745010.
  18. ^ Volodzko, David. "China's Biggest Taboos: The Three Ts". The Diplomat. Retrieved 2019-05-09.
  19. ^ Zachariah, Lee (2015-11-10). "Christmas Island and the Language of Death". Vice. Retrieved 2019-05-10.
  20. ^ Krämer, Michael (2013-05-04). "There is no alternative! | Michael Krämer | Life & Physics". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2019-05-10.
  21. ^ Blabbermouth (2016-10-29). "HENRY ROLLINS Blasts DONALD TRUMP, Says HILLARY CLINTON 'Would Make A Very Good President'". BLABBERMOUTH.NET. Retrieved 2019-08-11.
  22. ^ Henigan, Dennis A. (2016-07-30). "The 3 Worst Arguments Against Gun Control". Retrieved 2019-08-11.
  23. ^ EST, Kurt Eichenwald On 12/17/15 at 12:32 AM (2015-12-17). "America's Abortion Wars (and How to End Them)". Newsweek. Retrieved 2019-08-11.
  24. ^ Beinhart, Larry. "'Arm the teachers!'". Retrieved 2019-08-11.
  25. ^ "Shutting down abortion debates and banning the SWP - what a terrible". The Independent. 2014-11-21. Retrieved 2019-05-09.
  26. ^ O'Brien, Breda. "Activists using 'homophobia' label as bullying tactic". The Irish Times. Retrieved 2019-05-10.
  27. ^ Douglass-Williams, Christine (2019-01-15). The Challenge of Modernizing Islam: Reformers Speak Out and the Obstacles They Face. Encounter Books. ISBN 9781641770217.
  28. ^ Nolan, Larissa (2018-12-23). "Larissa Nolan: Speared by poisoned darts feminism". ISSN 0140-0460. Retrieved 2019-05-10.
  29. ^ Morabito, Stella (2016-10-17). "Professor Ignites Protests By Refusing To Use Transgender Pronouns". The Federalist. Retrieved 2019-05-09.
  30. ^ Peterson, Britt (March 19, 2015), "Scientology's enturbulating lingo", Boston Globe, retrieved October 25, 2016
  31. ^ Sanders, Ash; Sanders, Ash (2019-06-24). "Children of Scientology: Life After Growing Up in an Alleged Cult". Rolling Stone. Retrieved 2019-08-07.
  32. ^ a b Scaramanga, Jonny (2016-01-12). "What does brainwashing do?". Leaving Fundamentalism. Retrieved 2019-05-10.
  33. ^ Cross, Katherine. "Opinion: So, you want to talk about porn on Steam". Retrieved 2019-05-09.