This is part of a #FridayFlashback series of re-edited and rereleased essays. The essay, written in COVID-19's earlier days, is a response to the proliferation of thoughtless clichés at the time. It was first published March 20 2020.
There’s always a silver lining; you have to make good of a bad situation; little did I know; you win some, you lose some; easy come, easy go; &c. &c. In these trying times we are spontaneously assaulted by a veritable deluge of readymade clichés and platitudes, truisms and other detritus of verbal thoughtlessness, all to induce a delirious contentment, a soporific calm. And, simply, it’s an obscenity.
An elderly woman dies home alone because the British government’s ‘herd immunity’ policy is, always has been, clearly, a form of outright and naked social murder — as Engels himself would have observed. What silver lining is there in this abysmal situation? Sure we can learn, make good. But we could have made better of a good situation. And sure, life goes on, but that, however necessary, can still be a genuine outrage.
Clichés can range from the more innocuous (see all of the above), to the downright abhorrent: e.g. to be told to always consider the worse suffering in the world, a sort of meta-performance of righteousness that often pays little heed to that worse suffering. But every cliché takes place in lieu of a more authentic, more original, perhaps rawer, perhaps flawed, perhaps vulnerable response.
If you’re reading this essay, given my general output, it’s more than likely that you love literature too, as well as films and maybe other narrative mediums besides (comics, games, ballads, poems). And, be honest, it’s the novelty that you love. It’s seeing things in new ways, in different ways, in ways that challenge prescribed self conceptions and social limits.
This crisis is as much a crisis of politics (of social limits) as it is a natural one; if not more so! It’s a crisis of different, mutually reinforcing authoritarianisms. The authoritarianism of capital that demands people work to ends with no social benefit, in ways that place themselves and others at absurd risk, so as to merely reproduce their own lives often in poverty and squalor. The authoritarianism of states whose own need to persist prevent them from forms of transparency that assist combating pandemics such as COVID-19. The authoritarianism of nations that place parochial interests over global solidarity, to the ultimate detriment even of the parochial.
Authoritarianism thrives on cliché. It needs the bolstering of existing points of view, of easy wisdoms that can be refashioned to any purpose or result. This is why the authoritarian personality fears the artist, and loves the propagandist — who for all their overlapping similarities, work to distinct and counterposing goals. Because authoritarianism has no original thought of its own, it can only borrow from the stock of decaying tropes. Artists do well when they disrupt those tropes, and leave the propagandist with a scarcity to draw on.
The cliches with which I began this essay could be called the stiff upper lip witticisms. They aim at a curious pacification, a dulling of our human responses, of indignation. They can aid functioning, but often a functioning purposed to nonhuman ends — the ends of the replication of alienated systems, rather than of a coming together, even if that coming together necessarily encompasses a more literal, temporary staying apart.
Such is the temptation of these clichés because they can be deployed by anyone, and at any time, to guard against often difficult encounters with a human being in their fragility and difference. Far easier to employ one than to carefully work through someone else’s horror, all the more so if that horror mirrors one being repressed by the cliché’s wielder. But however easier, it is also a form of laziness that wounds us all.
Horror is not the wrong reaction. Neither is a desire for utopia, for a better world. What’s important — vital — is that these human urges are met with kindness and curiosity, rather than a callous dismissal. Listen to those who are in pain, those suffering most: disabled and sick people who feel abandoned, the elderly who are so intensely at risk, people who have seen the worst of this crisis already — our siblings across the world. Learn from their perspectives to make your own more robust.
This crisis is not the end. Those in charge will use it long after as an excuse, and demand that we excuse their demonstrably poor handling of the disaster. Don’t let them. If COVID-19 produces a recession, it will not have caused this, but only exposed the contradictions in a wage-economy dependent on mass exploitation of workers, and hoodwinking consumers.
There are two opposing characteristics of human adaptability and malleability. We can flourish in ways beyond current imagination, demonstrating feats of ingenuity and love that shock even ourselves, and we can be rendered baser than the darkest horrors even hint. The range of the possible is hard to fathom, and the stakes are consequently greater than we can grasp. Clichés go one way, surpassing them goes in the other direction.
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