Fatuous Adages—and Another Irritation of the Day

Blowing off steam

Dear readers, today I’m going to blow off a little steam—first about platitudes that I find particularly irritating. Every time I hear one of these, it’s like brushing up against a leaf of poison oak. It’s not enough to send me to the hospital, just enough to raise a few blisters. And second, I’ll be grousing about a public forum that appears to have slammed the door on my participation.

The platitudes currently annoying me all have similar themes.

“Everything happens for a reason.”

If we’re talking science, yes. Throw a ball weighing x across a field with y amount of force and it will ascend to a height of z and then fall back to earth. Throw it harder and it will go farther. You can describe its arc mathematically. When people repeat the above-mentioned cliché, though, they’re usually referring to some non-scientific, perhaps supernatural force that manages human affairs.

I first heard these words from a dear friend, one of the kindest and most generous women I ever met. She had been abused as a child and, although successful in some respects, never managed to find a partner who would give her the love she deserved. I suppose this adage was how she explained her romantic misfortune to herself.

“When you pray for something and don’t get it, it’s because God has something better in mind for you.”

I don’t know anyone who justifies their own misfortunes with this bromide, but in some religious communities it is ever-popular for justifying the misfortunes of others.

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Martin Luther King Jr. famously used this quote from transcendentalist Theodore Parker in some of his speeches. This platitude, like the previous two, assumes that there is some good reason for bad fortune, but this one is willing to admit that justice doesn’t necessarily happen in one’s lifetime and might, in fact, come only after generations.

What in any case is “the arc of the moral universe?” Another supernatural force—another name for God? An omnipotence who, after 400 years of slavery and suffering, will eventually send us a Moses? Sorry, MLK, I don’t buy it. I don’t know how anyone can believe in that after Auschwitz. I’m more inclined to follow the biblical injunction, “Justice, justice, shall you pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20). As I interpret that verse, we ourselves must strive to bring about righteousness in human affairs, and not wait for divine intervention. MLK himself certainly didn’t sit around waiting for justice to rain down on us from the sky.

“Karma will get him.”

“What goes around, comes around.”

These are the faux-East Indian version of the idea and a more western variant. In this case, the speaker expresses an assumption that some law of the universe, as certain as gravity or e=mc2, will eventually ensure a just outcome.

“He/she is on the wrong side of history.”

“History will judge him/her.”

I wonder if those who utter these platitudes think of “history” as another supernatural entity, like karma, or a monolithic record of the past carved into stone by God.

I’m more inclined to believe another old saying, that history is written by the victors. And it is rewritten in subsequent generations, to support the reigning ideology of the day. Sometimes, too, we have conflicting versions, as in current disputes over whether we should or shouldn’t teach the history of slavery and racism in America.

For another example, the United States Army’s Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps (JROTC) textbooks presents students in its program with a view of history considerably at odds with that in their regular high school texts—a viewpoint that the New York Times called “a conservative shading of political issues and accounts of historical events that falsify or downplay the failings of the U.S. government.”

“No one is above the law.”

During the last few years this platitude has been repeated over and over in the comments section to NY Times articles, as though readers were reciting the Credo, or a new version of the Pledge of Allegiance. (Remember “with liberty and justice for all?”)

However, in recent times even the densest readers acknowledge that certain individuals fly so far above the law that they could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not only retain the support of their voters, but never face prosecution. As one commenter wrote about the death penalty being applied to a teenager in Texas, “The hypocrisy of sentencing to death one teenager for killing one person in a drug-related crime when we let Presidents and government officials go free, and even honor them for killing hundreds of thousands of innocent people in imaginary WMD wars, police brutality, CIA underwritten coups, and ‘legal’ assassinations, is enough to sicken any rational person.”

I’m hoping that this adage has died out of the public discourse, or at least is only used ironically.

Platitudes Aside, I’ve Been Blackballed!

I subscribe online to several newspapers, including my home town New York Times. Until a few months ago, I frequently posted comments on articles. Sometimes my observations or opinions were highly rated by other readers and some were even chosen as “NY Times Picks.”

Around four months ago, I began to notice that no matter how quickly I responded, even if I was among the first five to write in, my words did not appear until a day later, when the comments section was closed, the article itself was no longer “hot,” and hardly anyone was likely to notice the last few comments.

A couple of weeks ago the Times stopped showing my comments entirely.

At the top of each section, there is text that says, “The Times needs your voice. We welcome your on-topic commentary, criticism and expertise. Comments are moderated for civility.”

I don’t write uncivil diatribes. I don’t cuss, threaten violence, or even use bad grammar. Eventually I called the paper and spoke to someone in customer service. He couldn’t see a problem with my comments. He said he would correct the matter, and told me to email two departments. I did. I never heard back—and my comments still don’t appear.

The only reason I can find for this curious omission is that my politics are somewhat to the left of Bernie Sanders, and not welcome in a newspaper that mostly supports “centrist”—i.e. corporate—Democrats. Apparently the range of permitted discourse is rather narrow.

11 Responses to Fatuous Adages—and Another Irritation of the Day

  1. Connie O Byrne December 13, 2022 at 7:28 am #

    I’ve noticed the same trend in our two local papers as well. While not nearly as large a paper as the NYT, the effect is the same. Keep writing and here’s hoping your voice once again is heard by a wider range of readers.

    For what it’s worth, my “platitude”, which I hope won’t result in steam coming out your ears, is “people get what they ask for”…in the political arena. They clamored for Trump and they got him in all his messy goriness. Now they’re trying to figure out how to at least moderate the damage. Good luck with that.

  2. Connie O Byrne December 13, 2022 at 7:31 am #

    Martha, seems even here opinions get dismissed. I just submitted a comment only to be told it seems to be a duplicate of a previous comment submitted by me. Not so, trust me. Guess I’m not getting what I asked for.

    • Martha Shelley December 13, 2022 at 10:49 pm #

      I see two comments from you. Not sure what’s missing. If you’ve written another and it doesn’t get published here, message me on Facebook.

      • Connie O Byrne December 14, 2022 at 10:18 am #

        my first one evidently got posted after all…about newspapers in small towns like mine to larger metro areas like Charlotte NC and Louisville KY…but on the upside, the small newspaper I read, the Salisbury Post, has a new editor and three new reporters…all under 40. They’re covering mostly local stuff in the cities/towns of Rowan County with state and national on Sundays. While they’re all doing the essentials of who, what and where, the young man I’m encouraging is also willing to delve into the why. The three young men are all either new to journalism and/reporting.
        my closing platitude, of my creation: Hope, like flowers, springs eternal.

  3. Mary Ann December 13, 2022 at 12:04 pm #

    I always enjoy your writing even when I disagree. I loved your quote from Deuteronomy. It is as true now as it was then.

  4. Martha Shelley December 13, 2022 at 10:50 pm #

    Hi Mary Ann, and thank you!
    Let me know when you disagree–I’d love to hear your point of view.

  5. Dajenya December 14, 2022 at 7:30 pm #

    Entertaining critique which corresponds entirely with my own opinions.
    Shame on NYT!

    Here’s one more platitude people sometimes use thinking (falsely) that it will comfort someone in grief: “She (or he or they) is in a better place.” Really? How would they know? I suppose that sometimes any place seems better than here. But since most of us opt to live as long as possible, we must (at least secretly) figure this place is better than nothing, and we have no reason to be certain there is some heaven awaiting us after death… if most people reallly felt sure of that, I would expect a much higher rate of suicide; why wait?…. Even if you really believe in heaven and hell after death, why presume the departed one get to go to heaven? In any case, it is not comforting. In times of grief, one is even more vulnerable to poison-oaklike irritation, so don’t add insult to injury with such platitudes. Want to be truely comforting? Just tell the grieving one that you are there for them and listen to whatever they want to express.

    • Martha Shelley December 14, 2022 at 7:46 pm #

      Hi Dajenya,
      I’d like to think I could go to a better place, but so far NASA hasn’t found any suitable planets and if they did find one, the current inhabitants wouldn’t let our destructive species in.

  6. Dajenya December 14, 2022 at 7:35 pm #

    Whoops, ended before I meant to. One more line: Happy Holidays to any who celebrate anything, and happy life to anyone else.

    Oh… I just got the line that Connie complained of: “Duplicate comment detected; it looks as though you’ve already said that!” I guess the bot in control of this site doesn’t want to hear from anyone twice in a row.

  7. Connie O Byrne December 14, 2022 at 9:15 pm #

    Connie here…but it turned out to have been posted anyway! go figure!!!

  8. Esther Newton December 15, 2022 at 7:52 am #

    I find all those platitudes annoying and false as well, with the exception of “no one is above the law.” As you pointi out, as a description this is false. But as an aspiration it is powerful. l still cling to the hope that prosecutors will be able to bring Trmp and his chief henchmen down and right now they are moving in the right direction.

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