By Daniel Rigney

We human beings think almost entirely in clichés. We can’t help ourselves. Like scratched grooves on a vinyl record (remember those?), we repeat the same familiar expressions over and over and over and over and over. When others speak them back to us, we call them conventional wisdom.

How much longer can we tread the tired neural pathways of the past? How much longer can deny that our antiquated cliché systems are broken and in need of repair, if not uh reinvention?

Perhaps there’s no escaping repetitive thought. But new times call for new clichés. A swirling and accelerating world demands fresh ideas and novel modes of expression. Our minds and hearts hunger for the next generation of catch phrases. We yearn for the platitudes of the future.

As an example of current repetitive thought, consider the cliché that this or that social system is “broken,” conjuring the image of society as an elaborate Rube Goldberg machine  made of oddly-joined gears and springs and thingamabobs in a state of constant motion. When one piece of the machine goes haywire, all the other pieces are affected. The whole system goes out of whack.

The image of a social institution (a Congress, an immigration policy, a marriage, a world banking system) as a broken machine has some obvious defects from the start. First, it requires us to think of social institutions as lifeless mechanisms, as engineers might think of them (i.e., as flow charts connecting input, processing, output, performance metrics, feedback, and readjustment, all repeated endlessly in the quest for someone’s idea of perfect “efficiency”).  Not that there’s anything wrong with an engineering approach to people, but it does discourage other more fluid and lifelike images of society (e.g., as organism or ecosystem, game, theatrical production, or conversation).

The broken machine metaphor suggests that there was a time when the institutional machinery was in good repair and functioning smoothly, an assumption that underlies what is sometimes called “golden age analysis.” The question then becomes how to restore the broken system so that it works as well as we think it used to, or perhaps to redesign it so it works even better than it did in our imagined past. But in the latter case we’re not talking about “fixing” a “broken” system. We’re talking about throwing the damned thing out and starting over – which isn’t always a bad idea, though it’s not always a good one either.

Fixing one part of a dysfunctional social system can sometimes produce unexpected problems elsewhere – the familiar whack-a-mole problem, a.k.a.  the problem of unintended consequences. Conservatives in particular like to warn of the hazards of unintended consequences, though they often wrongly imply that these are necessarily undesirable. Sometimes unintended outcomes are bad, but sometimes they’re surprisingly good; and in any case we must always ask, “bad for whom?” and “good for whom?

So what should we do with our broken cliché system? How shall we repair our apparatus of shared thought? For starters, I suggest we begin fixing the “broken” cliché itself by uninstalling  it and tossing it into the dustbin of rhetorical history.  It’s a broken record, and as a tired old industrial cliché its working life is over.


Readers who disliked this essay may also dislike “Announcing the Catchies: Most Popular Media Catch Phrases.”




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