The Media Zone

How the media make sense and nonsense of the world.

Don't Touch My Junk: Media and The Cliché Epidemic

Soon, there was an epidemic of genital "junk" talking.

I'm sure I heard Wolf Blitzer say, "So, at the end of the day, if we drill down into meat of the issue, CNN, with the best news team on television, will break it down, put it all into perspective and provide the bottom line to the meaning of this viral event in the blogosphere."  If he hasn't, he will.

Lights! Action! Platitudes!

The 9/11 anniversary is upon us,  Hurricane Irene just left town.  Primary season has begun.  You watch a lot of news and interviews during political campaign seasons and debates, during the course of extreme weather and other natural disasters (perfect storms and all that), or events of war, especially endless cowardly acts of violence and senseless killings. Seriously though, can people who fly their planes into symbolic U.S. landmarks really be called cowards? Terrorists? Yes. Martyrs? I suppose. But cowards? Not on your life. Or theirs.

And just what the hell constitutes a "senseless" killing?" Just because a motive isn't obvious, or just because the murder victim is sympathetic or defenseless (a child, a priest, a pregnant woman), doesn't make the act of killing them senseless to the murderer. Hey, he may just want to upset or scare you or a gang of you. That's what terrorists do. They instill terror. Not senseless at all.

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Maybe all these violence descriptors are just reflexive, thoughtless figures of speech-- clichés.

Speaking of which, have you noticed how certain cliché words and phrases creep into politicians' vocabularies? It seems everyone is working from the same public speaking playbook -- Public Speaking for Dummies. You may even find yourself lapsing into their use. They're horribly infectious.

These linguistic contagions pop up in the transmedia universe  like power neck ties on TV news anchors and political candidates in primary debates. How many times have you heard a speaker use the phrase "At the end of the day?" I seem to start and end my every media day hearing it spill from some media-maven mouth. Who started it? Damn it! I want to know! Why did it replace terms like "in the final analysis" or "the bottom line is..."? 

The media enable the clichés' easy assimilation of instant fad words into the vocabulary of a culture. Like they say, the phenomenon isn't new but, thanks to new media technology, the speed and breadth of its transmission is. We are media-mobbed by phrases like "cutting edge, "not brain surgery" or "outside the box," branding, cougar moms and Mama Grizzlies, man caves and man-up. The barbarisms never cease.

At some point, some juncture, some (dare I say, some "tipping point,") quantitative metrics like speed and breadth produce qualitative differences in a culture. In that way these processes are in league with texting, tweeting and all other abbreviated forms of communication between people or their grab bags of technological substitutes, avatars, or mediators.

What cliché-speak words and phrases do so insidiously is accelerate the laying waste to creative thought, to language as artistry rather than mere functional transmission of information. Conversation, punditry, narratives, become predictable and dull.  Exposure is like inhaling carbon monoxide instead of oxygen. Brain cells languish and die from underuse.

There are of course exceptions: words and phrases that have few substitutes or economically take the place of many words, like "the video went viral." It conveys almost exactly the same meaning as "the video rapidly traveled through cyberspace and was viewed by tens of thousands of people online." So, sometimes you take the stance that if it ain't broke, don't fix it--or criticize it.

Political-speak is rife with a parade sentimental mouthings masquerading as authentic expressions of caring. How many times do pols, Obama and Bush included, utter these cookie cut words when addressing the nation about some military adventure, address the soldiers or their families with the obligatory cliché, "Our thoughts and prayers are with you"? HOW MANY TIMES?!!

You've heard it! But how often did you feel it in their words? How about ending a speech with the ever-popular,"...and may God bless the United States of America" platitude? Perfunctory political-speak at its most politically correct pandering. Leaders of both parties fall prey to their audience-approving blandishments.

Origins


One wonders how these aural-oral infections begin. Sometimes it's obvious, of course. Take the recent privacy brouhaha over airport body searches and scans which offered up the tape of a passenger threatening to sue if the TSA agent even incidentally "touched my junk." "Junk? Never heard of "privates" being called "junk" But the rankled lad did. And soon, everybody on TV was talking "junk". It displaced "don't tase me bro" as the fun phrase of the month.

 

Speed: CNN (or MSNBC, I can't recall which) even showcased one of their employers performing a song he had quickly composed called "don't touch my junk." Late-nite comedians like Craig Ferguson demanded a guarantee by the TSA that someone would be required to touch their junk-gender optional -- or else they would sue for false advertising and cruel and unusual invitations.YouTube?  All over it.

Breadth: At this moment "junk" seems fairly tied to 'naughty" things so its contagion dimension might be more confined than the ubiquitous "perfect storm" or the "800 pound gorilla" and his African cousin, the "elephant in the room."

The internet grammar sites are dappled, doppled and dimpled with rants and ruminations bemoaning the fact that no sooner does one cliché, like "world class," die a well-deserved death then up jumps the devil with "drill down, "cutting edge," or "skill set." With me, my ears start to bleed, my teeth start to gnash, and bile starts to pool somewhere in my gallbladder.

So, we know how genital " junk" started its spread. But the rest of the clichés and hackneyed phrases? Hard to say beyond repetition and who's repeating. There are fashion-makers and trend setters in clothes. Maybe there are trend setters in the fashion world of clichés.

Or, maybe it's true that, as New Yorkers are wont to believe: "everything starts on Fire Island."

Well, probably not though.

Why are we such linguistic lemmings?

Why are we so susceptible to acquiring and mouthing clichés? Don't we have taste? Can't we RESIST!?

Apparently not. Or not easily. We are an imitative, mimetic species. Were it not for our natural inclination to ape the movements, pronunciations and speech patterns of our socializing family, it would be nearly impossible for us to acquire speech and other features of culture, or at least to acquire them as easily as we do as infants.

Mirror Neurons

It's possible, moreover that our brain is wired to do just that, for both language and behavior, gestures, emotional expressions, etc., i.e. all non-verbal meta-communications. One of the mechanisms or structures aiding in this are mirror neurons. These brain neurons fire both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another. Thus, the neuron "mirrors" the behavior of the other, as though the observer were itself acting. At the psychological level this parallels what is called vicarious learning.

Priming

We are also psychologically so disposed. In social psychology we have the term priming: it's the tendency for frequently or recently heard, read, or spoken words, terms or concepts to come to mind easily and influence the way we interpret new information, and phrase or frame ideas. When new or seldom used words or phrases start to slip easily into conversation, this is an example of priming effects. If clichés are involved, we become carriers of the infection.

Central and Peripheral Processing

In terms of brain functioning, one psychophysiological model holds that there are two principal ways of processing information: Centrally and peripherally. What we might call lazy thinking, speaking, writing is peripheral and involves minimal or incidental attention or focus. Central processing of information, by contrast, involves more active work in the organization or articulation of thoughts, etc. This difference is true for both receiving and expressing words and ideas.

Peripheral functioning has been called the path of least resistance, verbal sleepwalking, even being a cognitive miser i.e., expending the least energy to accomplish a receptive or expressive communicative task.

At the end of the bottom line...

Undercutting my complaining, then, is the sad fact that, as a species, we're physiologically set up to reach for the cliché (unless we look to a higher calling, the art of speaking and writing; some of us do, most of us don't).

Lazily reaching for the cliché is observed, then, largely when language is being used as simple communication, fertile ground for going for the readily available, the primed, the cliché. Resist it. Fight it! Go for the gold not the dross when speaking. Be a writer, not a typist. You're known by the company you keep, in people and in your vocabulary of friends. That's the true bottom line. Stay Eloquent.

Stuart Fischoff, Ph.D., is Senior Editor of the Journal of Media Psychology and Emeritus Professor of Media Psychology at Cal State, Los Angeles.

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