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Against the Cliche “It Is What It Is”

December 19, 2020

People, in general, love to hold themselves up as paragons of wisdom, of deep thinking, of having at their manicured or cigarette-stained fingertips a catalogue of Solomon-esque quotations that, once uttered with certainty, leave the listener in awe. But people, in general, are also lazy, vapid and shallow, to say nothing of stupid and lacking in imagination. So how can a biological automaton – i.e., a standard-issue human – be both a dunce and a Greek oracle? The answer: by repeating the phrase “It is what it is” and then dropping the metaphorical mike – BOOM!

In other words, the Renaissance Man/Woman wannabe, when feeling compelled to settle any debate or concern, articulates a cliché – that is, if a cliché can be deemed worthy to be joined with the word “articulates.” For a cliché is never the product of a mind plummeting the depths of vast erudition and creativity, and then rushing to the surface to bring a new insight to the terrestrial apes, but rather the product of a parrot copying the words of its consumerist owner whose idea of depth is to scroll down to the second page of Amazon’s list of used vacuum cleaners. An original thinker, or at least someone who tries to piece together a sentence word by word, aspires upward from the cultural baseline, while the cliché-spouter looks to the ground and picks up the first ready-made phrase.

The consensus is that clichés are clichés for a reason, that they possess a universal truth that cannot be improved upon by additional verbiage. This may be true for many clichés like “Live one day at a time” or “Actions speak louder than words.” Yet there are a lot of clichés that make absolutely no sense. Ask a co-worker, How are you doing? — and often their response will be the cliché of stating the day of the week, as in, “It’s Wednesday.” “Okaaaaay, now that we’ve agreed upon our current place on the calendar, I’ll ask you again, ‘How are YOU doing?’” “Ah, I said it’s Wednesday.” “But what does that have to do with your present mindset, your mood?” And this is when the genius co-worker delivers the coup de grace by saying, “It is what it is.”

There is a ground zero for every cliché, the day when someone spoke it for the first time, when it was not a cliché but an original thought, even if it was stupid upon its inception. Take for example, the quote-now-a-cliché, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” This makes little sense. It would be more accurate to say that “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” stems not from insanity but rather from sheer stupidity. A truly crazy person would, in fact, perceive a novel result with each repetition of an action. Say everyday the lunatic wakes up and pours corn flakes into a huge bowl of maple syrup, and eats the whole thing, and each time it results in a sticky mouth and an intense sugar high, but NOT in his mind! From his insane vantage point, each succeeding breakfast opens up to him a whole new vista. One day the act causes him to believe that he is the U.S. Surgeon General; and the next day that he is a third-century Christian hermit; and the next, a female Italian opera singer from the 1880s; and the next, a character in the movie Steel Magnolias. Now that is truly nuts, right?

The worst part of this cliché is that it has been officially attributed to Albert Einstein – yeah, a pretty smart guy. But before the reader starts to now question the validity of the Special and General Theories of Relativity, be assured that Einstein never stated this mathematically unsound principle, and, furthermore, it was first postulated in a Narcotics Anonymous pamphlet 26 years AFTER his death. In short, an entire industry of calendars, coffee cups and T-shirts featuring a picture of Einstein with this nonsensical cliché is based on another cliché that is an outright lie.

The cliché under discussion, “It is what it is,” first appeared in the Nebraska State Journal in 1949 in an article written by J.E. Lawrence: “New land is harsh, and vigorous, and sturdy. It scorns evidence of weakness. There is nothing of sham or hypocrisy in it. It is what it is, without an apology.” Little did Lawrence know what evil he had spawned in that throw-away line.

No cliché makes less sense than “It is what it is.” It requires no strenuous thought to realize this argument. All one must do is ask, “What else would ‘it’ be?” Of course, IT is what IT is! To really grasp this simple concept, just replace “it” with a noun, and say, “a tree is a tree,” or “a cold sore is a cold sore,” or “a polyhedron is a polyhedron.” If you say to me, “A hair follicle is a hair follicle” – well, to borrow a cliché, I will retort, “No shit, Sherlock!”

The overrated writer, Gertrude Stein, had one memorable line, “A rose is a rose is a rose.” In her book, The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas, which is less a memoir about Stein’s lover and more a tribute about the egomaniacal Stein herself, there should have been this passage: “In our salon, Gertrude would silence Picasso and Hemingway by leveling at them the ultimate Truth, ‘It is what it is what it is what it is.”

In many cases, the purveyor of this cliché uses it to mask his befuddlement. He is not someone who reads real books, or at least those not on the shelves at airports, nor someone who has a science degree and now works in a lab that demands precision of thought and the writing down of accurate measurements. Nay, he is a Liberal Arts major working at a Starbucks, who, when confronted by a complex idea that demands breaking it down to its individual components and then rebuilding it in order to understand, in full, its meaning so to allow an intelligent point-by-point response, will instead rub his sketchy soul-patch, stare out into the social media landscape that is forever blinking before his eyes, and drop on you the final solution, “It is what it is.” Then he will hand you a latte with the sense of one who has not only furnished a fellow citizen with a tasty, caffeinated drink but also with stimulating food for thought – now go, citizen, and sin no more!

The “It Is What It Is” person is the same zombie who says, “Everything happens for a reason.” The reader will argue that everything does in fact happen for a reason, that if the sun beats down on a wet earth, then moisture will rise into clouds and the clouds will produce rain; or if a woman wears a top that accentuates her cleavage, she will receive more dinner invitations, from both men and women, than if she covered her torso in a giant potato sack. But these examples are more attributable to Causation rather than what the zombie in question means when she says, “Everything happens for a reason.” What she means is that there is some guy called The Universe whose full-time job is to manipulate mass and energy throughout the entire Expanse for the sole purpose of making sure she meets the right potential husband at the right time, or that, in an animal shelter, she sets her eyes on the rescue dog that will henceforth change the course of human history. That’s her reason, and why she philosophizes that we must listen to The Universe, ignoring the hard truth that The Universe is not some anthropomorphic Life Coach but instead an endless and indifferent collection of matter and dark matter with not an iota of sentience or concern for the lady’s welfare.

Sports pundits are especially prone to declaring that “it is what it is.” Perhaps this does “happen for a reason,” the reason being that there is only so much to say about having to establish the running game, or someone needing to step up, or an introverted player needing to show leadership…until, finally, you can see the pundit’s mental wheels begin to grind to a halt, at which point he straightens up and, with the conviction of God on Judgment Day about to send Charles Manson to Hell, says that “it is what it is.” – whereupon his eyes light up like the aforementioned God on the Seventh Day, and he brings home his point, “Like I said, IT IS WHAT IT IS!”

In the movie, Bull Durham, there is the classic scene in which Kevin Costner teaches Tim Robbins the rudiments of the pre/post-game interview, namely that “you have to learn your clichés. You’re gonna have to study them. You’re gonna have to know them. They’re your friends.” That was in 1988, when the top athlete go-to clichés were “We gotta play them one day at a time” and “I’m just happy to be here.” Nowadays if Costner were to instruct the youthful jock on the importance of memorizing a list of clichés, he would put at the top of that list, and in large bold-face type, It is what it is. He would then expand his lesson thus: “Saying ‘It is what it is’ makes you appear an authority on any topic. For instance, if a reporter asks you for your analysis of James Clerk Maxwell’s four equations on electromagnetism, just shake your head as if you’re speaking to an idiot, and intone, ‘It is what it is,” and nine times out of ten the so-called journalist will back away in awe, and say, ‘Whoa!’”

This irritating aphorism – if such a tiresome cliche can be referred to as something out of Plato’s Republic — has so permeated American society that it is not farfetched to imagine the following scenarios:

There is a cult in Los Angeles modeled on an ancient Far Eastern country. The chef asks the Emperor/Cult Leader how he likes his meal, and the Reincarnation of the Mandate of Heaven tosses aside his eating utensil and quips, ‘It is what it is.” – meaning that the next royal dinner will be the chef’s head on a platter.

A man and a woman complete the sexual act, and the man rolls over and asks his lover, “How was it for you?” – to which the woman sighs, “It is what it is.” The man goes on to spend ten years in therapy trying to recover his self-esteem.

The U.S. National Security Advisor enters the Oval Office, and announces, “Mr. President, we think the Russians are about to launch a nuclear attack. What do we do?” The President leans back in his chair, reaches over to touch the American flag, and says, “It is what it is.” “Meaning?” asks the senior aide. “Meaning?” shouts the President. “I just articulated the fundamental meaning of the Universe, you fool! Now go and take care of it!” The next day sees the world as a post-apocalyptic hell-scape.

These imaginary scenarios are fun to ponder, but what is not fun is to witness a real-life situation wherein two people frantically try to establish their respective dominance by being the first to bring down the hammer by declaring, “It is what it is.” For once one of the two adversaries delivers this kill-shot, the other will automatically concede defeat. This is laziness masquerading as Confucianism.

There have even been reports of people opening a conversation with the words, “It is what it is” as a preemptive strike to…to what? Who knows.

In the end, if I were to read this essay to a “normal person,” that person would, in all likelihood, blink at me, and say, “It is what it is.” And I would respond by quoting Dudley Moore in Arthur, “Are you sure you want to be a nightclub comedian?”

(Checks my other writings at http://www.authorjamesfjohnson.com)

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