Language enables us to communicate thoughts, but it is used for that purpose only occasionally. A lot of the time, what is spoken (or written) is pretty much devoid of original content; what gets conveyed instead are platitudes. I’ll admit it — at times I’ve been guilty of speaking in platitudes, those remarks that are supposed to be profound, but when examined are really just empty words. They may have had some value a while ago, but have long since passed their expiration date for freshness — and they’re everywhere. Can I get an “amen”? See, there’s one now.
You’ve probably noticed that politicians and their interpreters are only capable of speaking Platitude, at least in public. They rely solely on a vocabulary that includes phrases about ideals and fiscal responsibility and job growth and tough decisions. When facts need to be found, they vow to leave no stone unturned. They insist that they will never compromise their principles, which some of us suspect is part of the problem.
Businessmen exhort their employees to strive for success (in selling things like acne remedies or carpet cleaning), noting that “failure is not an option”. What does that mean? An option, by definition, is a choice. Are they implying that their workers view failure as one of several attractive choices?
Personal failure or disappointment is sometimes attributed to the platitude “it wasn’t meant to be”; that may contradict the frequently expressed view that “it is what it is”.
Platitude is the universal language of sports. Stick a microphone in an athlete’s face, and between the “I means” and “you knows”, he’ll serve up a big helping of dull, trite phrases about the great team effort and how they’re “going good” and “just have to keep it going”. Do these interviews serve any purpose?
Does the sideline reporter really expect to get a candid answer from the football coach leaving the field at halftime when she asks him, “You’re down by seventeen points, Coach. What adjustments will you make in the second half?”
The truthful answer is “Hell if I know. My mother was right — I should have become a dentist.” Instead, he’ll mutter platitudes about his quarterback needing to “play within himself”, or “we have to do a better job of controlling the tempo.” Did we gain any insight from that?
Experts who analyze basketball games will inevitably inform us that one team or the other “really came to play today”. Ah, so that’s it. Judging from their uniforms, I had mistakenly assumed that the team had come to participate in a seminar on the development of the steam engine and its role in the Industrial Revolution. Incidentally, since these guys are paid enormous sums of money to participate in games, shouldn’t they “come to play” every time? Or are we supposed to draw the inference that some teams only come to play on, say, dates divisible by the number three?
Well, maybe all my complaints about platitudes sound a little harsh, but when I sit down at the keyboard, you know what? I bring my A game and give it 110%. After all, failure is not an option.