Q of the Week: Cliches, Catch-Phrases and Slogans

A very merry and magical Midsummer to all of you!
Yesterday was drizzly and miserable here in Elora (so I feel less bad about missing WiccanFest) but today is gloriously shiny and clear and warm and wonderful. I really ought to be outside, beating the bounds in my forest instead of sitting inside, blogging. But here’s a Q of the Week, for your consideration, after you return from beating the bounds in your own landscapes, of course.

Well June was Pagan Values Blogging Month, and as mentioned before I found myself a little disappointed by a lot of what I read. In her own contribution to the Pagan Values Blogging Month, Canadian Hedge Witch summed up exactly what I found so unsatisfying about so much of it:

The first thing I noticed reading all these blog posts, is a plethora of catch phrases and key words. Pagan values as pop culture?

Read the whole blog post here.

It seemed to me too that a lot of people’s blog posts about values was little more than a repetition of various cliches.

Good readers, please don’t get me wrong: I know and understand the value and the power of proverbs. I published 120 pagan wisdom-teachings in my fourth book, the result of an international folklore survey I conducted, along with philosophical commentary for most of them. Someone who offers advice using a traditional proverb brings to bear the whole power of his or her culture. And sometimes a cliche has its origins in an important insight. But that isn’t true all the time. In fact it can often be counter-productive, or even patronising and demeaning, to offer a cliche to someone who has experienced a serious upheval in his or her life.

For example: an article in last week’s Glob and Mule discusses the problems that can arise when offering a pop-culture cliche to someone who has just lost his job. It reads, in part:

Clichés – as frowned upon as they are – have become such fixtures in our everyday chatter that we fire them off without thinking. And that’s a problem when it comes to serious matters such as unemployment, career experts say. Something else may indeed “come down the pipe,” as job hunters hear from well-meaning friends and family, but such stock reassurances are often unhelpful and misguided, and, frankly, seem like a snub.

Read the whole article here.

Might this be explained by a desire to avoid facing real problems? If someone has a serious dilemma, or a serious emotional and spiritual conflict, might the cliche reply be a way for people to protect themselves from addressing the seriousness of the problem? Might it even be the case that the use of superficial catch-phrases is a sign of a superficial spirituality? As I pose these questions, let it be understood that I’m not speaking of any particular path or tradition. In fact I started thinking about this question after reading a passage from D. J. Hall, “Confessing the Faith: Christian Theology in a North American Context“, which I read on much-ado‘s LJ. Here’s a quote:

We are trying to answer all of our problems without exposing ourselves to them as real problems. There is not one crisis on our horizon — whether this means vast social problems such as poverty, unemployment, and racism or intensely personal problems such as the search for meaning, vocation, or personal integrity — that can be resolved unless we are prepared to go much further into the depths of the question than we are apparently able or willing to do… In other words, our optimism is defensive, and what it seeks to defend us from is truth.

A longer quote can be found here.

Well, friends, what do you think? Has religion and spirituality grown too superficial? Do we prefer to take an easy, sunny, uncontentious path, in order to avoid having to think seriously and deeply about things, and avoid facing serious and deep problems? I know there can be something profound in the thought that “we are children of the Goddess” (an idea which also appears in the Bible: see Romans 8:16 for instance) But I’m tired of hearing people tell me that when I describe certain problems in my life.

Or, are there any pop-culture cliches and catch-phrases which you think really are philosophically powerful, and are not given their proper due? Which ones? And can you explain what they really mean, without falling back on more cliches?

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8 Responses to Q of the Week: Cliches, Catch-Phrases and Slogans

  1. uncledark says:

    Like many things, religion and spirituality are something where one gets out of it what one puts into it. Minimal effort (usually) returns a shallow investment.

    That used to bother me more, but I have come to realize that what seems shallow to me may be just enough for someone else. It is possible that not everyone needs a deep connection with spirit, or at least not everyone needs to feel such a thing conciously.

    A lot of people do take an easy path. Some of them are doing it so as to avoid challenging themselves, but I do believe that others are honestly satisfied by that path. Perhaps they have enough hard work in other areas of their lives, and it’s a matter of time and energy commitment.

    In the same vein, there are people who resort to cliche to avoid engaging with another’s pain. Just as often, I find, cliche is the other option to standing there making odd, confused noises when presented with a situation for which there are no words.

  2. Simplicity is both direct/terse, and upon reflection exceedingly complex.

    “Love is the law.”
    “Harm none.”

    They seem pretty easy to digest, and agree with, but think about either of these for 60 seconds, and the layer of new questions is mind-boggling.

    We live in the era of the sound-bite, the precis, the blurb. Do most people prefer the simple catch-phrase they can parrot back without having to think? Damn right they do. But you can’t really tell who they are until you ask the next question – that’s where you find if there is depth to the thought, or just more surface.

    In that sense, Pagans are no different from anyone else.


  3. the_emi says:

    To generalize, I think “we” (as people in general) will take the easy path when possible, because it doesn’t require us to be wholly present like pain does.
    It’s easier to not feel, to not think too much, to skim instead of dive in. Doesn’t mean it’s right by any stretch… but how many times will people read a book or surf the internet or watch tv to avoid thinking about doing chores or how much they dislike their job (or a need to find a new job)?
    Or say for example, mental issues. It’s a whole lot easier to skim it off as “I’m fine” than to say “I’m suffering from chronic depression.”

    But pain, the big issues, when things are seriously wrong… it takes time and stubbornness and resilience and self-awareness and a genuine desire to experience and learn and grow and be present to get through any of that. It’s tiring, and sometimes when you’re already a little worn down, it seems too much to handle… so you skim instead.

    My 2c anyway.

  4. uber_wench says:

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  5. alfrecht says:

    This is a really excellent question, and a very important issue.

    I am very upset with how a great deal of what is considered “profound spirituality” by some people is, in fact, someone with a made-up title and claims to authority who has become a platitude-dispensing machine (and not even a particularly good one, quite often).

    One of the best books I’ve read in relation to this sort of thing deals with theodicy in particular (which isn’t as much of a problem for pagans as for creedal monotheists, but it is nonetheless something which has not yet been addressed in ways that amount to more than the types of platitudes you mentioned above), which is When Bad Things Happen to Good People, by Rabbi Harold Kushner. It’s a truly profound and inspirational book, and all the better because it is short. But, after discussing how some people will, for example, at the random death of some loved one say “She’s in a better place now” or “God has a plan and we can’t understand it,” and how this actually creates distance between actual compassion and understanding between people, Rabbi Kushner goes on to make a theological argument that the Jewish (and, by extension, Christian and Islamic) deity must be omnibenevolent, but cannot be omnipotent. That’s some serious stuff to consider…and it certainly bears upon a pagan viewpoint and has relevance for it, since very few polytheists I know would suggest that any of their deities are omnipotent.

    As for pop-culture catch-phrases that are powerful, genuine, and not trite: I’ll let you know when I find one (but don’t hold your breath)…! 😉

  6. clichesand catch-phrases

    I find very few instances where people using the platitudes and cliches described here are truly engaged in the word they are speaking, or really understand the full implications of those statements.

    Yes, it is the easy route; say something “appropriate” and move on as quickly as possible to avoid engagement. To do otherwise opens up the potential for having to look at one’s own pain, in many cases, and that appears to be much too difficult for most people.

    This linguistic distancing is well-learned – we are trained to this style of superficial acknowledgment from an early age, most of us, regardless of the Path we currently follow. That training has power, and it takes time and persistence (and desire) to change those well-trodden patterns.

    The other thing to consider here, to my mind, is that the superficiality indicated by these catch-phrases points to deeper issues in the wider Western culture as a whole. These words are bandaids for (sometimes) gaping wound, just like shopping, eating, television, alcohol and drugs, and for some people, spirituality and it’s language; these are all ‘approved’ ways of not going deeper, of not doing the work, and of not connecting with others and their difficulties, let alone one’s own.

    Can I think of a catch phrase that isn’t given it’s proper due? Not really, in the larger context of cultural use. I can only hope that the words that I use, I choose carefully, and with intent and conviction.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Catch Phrases

    I agree with caileaghside, but I leave a longer comment over at


    Good question to raise.


  8. marytek says:

    I can’t really comment as i generally do not pay attention to how people approach their spiritualities within north american neo-paganism.

    what i have seen is that in general peeps seem to be approaching their spirituality as an aspect of their social lives – light, fluffy, not much depth.

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