Magic Phrases

There's an old Danny Kaye comedy in which Danny, as the Court Jester, gets a demonic mnemonic to avoid a palatial poison potion. "Just remember it this way: the vessel with the pestle is the chalice from the palace, while the flagon with the dragon is the brew that is true." "Okay!" says Danny. "The vessel with the pestle is the chalice from the palace, while the flagon with the dragon is the brew that is true! The pestle with the vessel is the palace chalice, while the dragon with the flagon is the brew too!" The more Danny repeats it, the sillier it sounds, and the more confused he gets.

People who want to sound right without going to the bother of connecting their thoughts to realty have the same trouble for the same reason. The more they repeat memorized phrases, the more obvious is the disconnect from reality.

"Brevity is the soul of wit," is a perfectly good saying, as far as it goes. But that is not very far. The third time you say it, listeners will know you have nothing to say about wit. "I'm only trying to help," is so taken for granted that nobody would notice if it came out, "I'm help trying to only."

Researchers report that your eyeballs never stay perfectly still, but always move slightly, even in a fixed stare. If you watch carefully enough, you can verify this in a mirror. The reason is that senses respond to difference, so stillness without any change of angle would be counter-productive.

That's also the reason that the same fact of reality can be expressed in many different combinations of words. The idea is to avoid getting hung up on the words, but stay focused on reality. By expressing things to yourself in different ways, you vary the angle of examination, and get the picture clearer.

Does that mean the traffic cop and the umpire should not always say "Stop," and "Go," but vary it with "Cease," and "Commence?" No, because "stop" and "go" are being used as signals rather than statements about reality. That is what happens to any word or phrase repeated verbatim again and again: it becomes a signal.

If you give signals to those who have not agreed to follow your signals, then you are treating the signals as if they were magical—able to compel obedience. A popular one at the moment is: "It's for the children." To your friends, it shows you know the right signals. To others, it shows you know only the signals.

Magic phrases are thought to work because they give the correct signal to those who are awaiting that signal. In other words, they are as magical as a wave or a nod. To rely on them is to empty your mind of its links to reality, and link instead to combinations of empty words.

If, for example, you agree with Ayn Rand that "emotions are not tools of cognition," you can make that phrase a link to a pile of observations: how emotions get you confused rather than clear, how fear grabs you just as strong whether justified or not, how the same fact can produce different emotions at different times, and so on. You can say, "That doesn't mean to suppress my emotions, but it does mean not to pretend they tell me things." Or, you can just repeat the phrase over and over, as if those particular words, and only those words, will sink in and fix your mind.

The first time you say a magic phrase, it's clever. The second time, it's that clever thing you said. The third time, it's the party line. The fourth time, it's what you always say. The fifth time, it's that damned meaningless mantra.

Magic phrases are a poor substitute for thinking about reality.

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