I get it. The world is a dumpster fire, and it’s so alluring to say something, anything, to alleviate the tension. But when we fill the space with political clichés and platitudes, we run the risk of overshadowing productive conversation. Sometimes the “nice thing” isn’t worth saying.
Here’s the thing: There are so many deeply unpleasant topics that we, as a country, need to address. There’s a lot to be said in the aftermath of an election where the incumbent will not concede. There are conversations we ought to have as we stare down rising coronavirus rates. The list goes on.
There’s no judgment here (I’ve said a few of these clichés myself). Instead, I’m offering a few platitudes that annoy me most, along with a suggestion of what I’d want to hear instead. Before you substitute your favorite phrase with my words, remember that these clichés and platitudes fall flat for me when people use them (in so many different situations) without intention until they become meaningless, and the suggestions of what I’d prefer to hear are really personalized to my own experience. So whether you love my suggestions or hate them, I hope they inspire you to find your own words. Or, if all else fails, you can opt to say nothing at all.
1. Now is the time for forgiveness.
Over the past few days, even as our incumbent president continues to say that the election is rigged, I’ve seen calls for Biden-Harris supporters to extend compassion and forgiveness to folks who voted for President Trump. Forgiveness, as a concept, isn’t a terrible idea. In a 2016 literature review published in Cogent Psychology, researchers found that you reap mental and physical benefits when you forgive someone. But no one gets to tell people when to forgive another person. The dust hasn’t even settled on this election, so calls for forgiveness seem premature.
Additionally, government policies have real, sometimes harmful implications. So folks are allowed to hold on to their anger for a while. No one has to forgive before they are ready.
What I’d rather hear: Folks who were angry and did something about it inspired significant political change. People are allowed to be mad.
2. No matter who won, there’s still work to be done.
Okay, this is probably my favorite platitude (because it’s true), and I’ve said it many times myself. To be totally clear, it’s not a terrible thing to say in every circumstance. You just need to pick and choose when you say this kind of thing. When you’re having a conversation about organizing for change with a friend? Sure. When someone’s telling you the aftermath of a Biden-Harris win is the first time they’ve slept soundly in years? Not so much.
There are a few other reasons it shouldn’t be your go-to platitude. First, it invalidates the stark differences between the candidates. It does matter who won, as each administration has priorities that impact how we engage with the aforementioned work. And for a final point against using this phrase in the wrong context, saying this out loud can sometimes make it sound like you’re assuming people don’t know that there’s work to be done even when they probably do. That’s not to say we shouldn’t all remain engaged and encourage others to do so as well, but weighing when to say this one is a really good idea.
What I’d rather hear: I’m excited to continue working toward change under this new administration.
3. In some ways, the last four years have been a blessing.
If the last four years have yielded positivity for you, that’s amazing. But this platitude invalidates how catastrophic they’ve been for others. If you’re grieving, if you’ve lost your job, if you’ve taken to the streets in the middle of a pandemic—willing to risk the coronavirus to have your voice heard—you might not consider the last four years a blessing at all. It’s okay to experience joy and gratitude wherever you find it, but make sure you’re not invalidating anyone else’s pain and anger in the process.
What I’d rather hear: The last four years have taught me a lot and given me a deeper perspective on what’s important.
4. At least it’s over.
I know this has felt like the longest election season, and relief is a widespread emotion. But, well, is it over? What exactly is over? The fight for true equality and equity is far from over, but even beyond that, there’s still uncertainty about what’s going to happen between now and Inauguration Day. Many people are still working through those anxieties. Though it’s unlikely that the incumbent president’s legal challenges regarding election results will actually change the outcome of the race, declaring it over can feel invalidating for those who are concerned.
What I’d rather hear: I’m so glad we made it through election week!
5. Let’s agree to disagree.
Closely related to calls for forgiveness, “Let’s agree to disagree” makes it seem like political beliefs are intellectual exercises that don’t have consequences. But political issues are intensely personal. We can agree to disagree on dairy-free milk preferences (oat milk forever), but many of the political conversations are human rights issues—these views impact real people.
Even if you aren’t ending relationships over differing beliefs, saying “let’s agree to disagree” stops the conversation. It really means, “I don’t want to talk about this anymore. Let’s pretend our differences don’t exist.”
What I’d rather hear: This conversation is devolving, and I need to think about whether or not it’s productive for us to keep talking about this.
6. Kamala Harris shattered the glass ceiling.
Somewhere along the line, the glass ceiling stopped being a metaphor to describe the invisible barriers that keep marginalized people from ascending to power. Instead, for many people, it became something that one person could shatter alone. This is an oversimplification of the odds stacked against the average person, and it ignores the cuts and scrapes one endures to break barriers. Yes, Vice President–elect Kamala Harris has made history. In doing so, she’ll make it easier for others. Yes, she represents hope and possibility for so many. Still, the ceiling might have holes, but it hasn’t shattered—those invisible barriers are still intact.
What I’d rather hear: V.P.-elect Harris’s win expands my ideas about what’s possible.
7. Black women will save America.
To be clear: Black women can say this all day (they’ve earned the right). The phrase celebrates Black women for their political contributions and for turning up en masse to vote for policies that aim to improve Americans’ quality of life. But while so many non-Black people are excited about the majesty of Black women (and rightfully so), this proclamation runs the risk of falling a little flat. Blurting this out during a Zoom happy hour might feel necessary, but if you’re not a Black woman, actual Black women are probably side-eyeing your admiration. If Black women will save the country, how are you helping us do that? How are you protecting us in the process? Is it time to put your money where your mouth is?
What I’d rather hear: I’m actively looking into ways I can support Black women in my life, in my community, and across the globe.
8. It’s time for us all to reach across the aisle.
Once a phrase that politicians used to encourage bipartisan collaboration, the idea that citizens should reach across the proverbial aisle is commonplace (and mostly meaningless). You’re often asking marginalized people to engage with folks who don’t believe in their rights or don’t recognize their full humanity. Should politicians stop strictly voting along party lines when it can be harmful and find ways to work on behalf of citizens? Yes, they should. The rest of us should hold those folks accountable.
What I’d rather hear: I’m going to encourage my elected officials to reach across the aisle and support legislation that benefits us all.
9. There’s only one race: the human race.
Even though humans are one race, we can’t deny the very real implications of racial differences. When people say “We’re all one race: the human race,” it ignores all of the inequities that fall along racial lines. This phrase overshadows how race factors into pay disparities, maternal mortality, pandemic outcomes, immigration policies, and more. This phrase isn’t accomplishing what you might hope.
What I’d rather hear: Regardless of differences, I’m committed to supporting policies that make the world safer for everyone.
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