Friday, April 07, 2006

Defense of a Tautological Idiom

It is surely a fool's errand for me to dispute the edicts of editors on the use of the English language. Nonetheless, I must object to this blanket condemnation of the phrase "it is what it is" by the...[sheesh]...managing editor of Editor & Publisher magazine. Next week I'll argue with Steve Jobs about how to use an Apple computer and Scott Adams about how to create and market a comic strip.

I hadn't been keeping up with the blog A Capital Idea as I should, and when I rediscovered it recently, I found that in one of the posts, Nicole Stockdale linked, with apparent endorsement, this E&P column by Shawn Moynihan [unfortunately denied to us before my belated completion of this post; I persist undeterred], in which he called the phrase "it is what it is" "one of the most deflective, meaningless, redundant, and idiotic phrases in the English language" and "about as offensive as it gets to those of us who still care about words and their meaning." Since I am not offended by the phrase, it would seem I do not care about words or their meaning. This is a genuinely distressing discovery.

Despite that distress, I will, without defending Scott McClellan, the principal villian of Moynihan's piece, defend the phrase itself. Moynihan says the phrase is
a cliche typically used to mean "I'm done talking about this. I can't or don't want to quantify my logic in this exchange; I have no defense. Just accept what I'm saying without any further argument, and let's change the subject." He says it's "useful for ending an argument without having to justify your point." I agree that in his McClellan examples, the press secretary does seem to be using it for that purpose, and this is an objectionable use of the phrase.

Moynihan also criticizes Bill Cowher and Rosanne Cash for saying it, though, and there's an important distinction between their cases and that of McClellan. Though Moynihan first called the phrase "meaningless" and was thereby able to load it afresh with a meaning unjust and unlikable, there can reasonably be found in this idiom meaning that is legitimate and inoffensive.

In reference to an undesirable circumstance the speaker himself is forced to accept, the phrase is an effective and concise way to express resignation to and reconciliation with an unsought yet unavoidable reality.

To get a sense of the difference between
McClellan's use, on the one hand, and Cowher's and Cash's, on the other, consider the subject matter. McClellan is confronted with a question about a program conducted by an element of the federal government, with implications for the American people. It's the nation's business.

Cowher, meanwhile, was asked about how he deals with criticism. Moynihan doesn't cite a specific instance, but it's likely this query concerning criticism (prior to this February) that he "can't win the big one" after taking the Steelers to five AFC Championships and no further. Does it bother him? Does it gnaw at him? How does he feel about it? "It is what it is.
I can't do anything about it. You can say anything you want about me and the failures I have had. That's fine. I understand it's part of this business."

Moynihan had described Cowher's comment this way:
We're barely into the pre-Super Bowl media frenzy and Pittsburgh Steelers Coach Bill Cowher already has used the phrase, "responding" to questions about how he deals with criticism.
Moynihan's quotation marks around "responding" indicate
, of course, that Cowher hasn't really responded to the question, that "it is what it is" was a device to avoid actually answering. In fact, Cowher followed "it is what it is" with another four (mostly) longer sentences expanding on his point.

Not only does Cowher not use the phrase as a means of evasion, the question in the first place is about his own state of mind and his feelings. How does he cope with disrespect from various writers, commentators, and football fans? How does such disrespect affect his psyche? He perceives the reality of the situation, understands that it's beyond his control, and accepts these facts. He sees the fact for what it is, and while it may not be as he'd prefer, he's reconciled himself to it.

Similarly, Rosanne Cash is discussing her own feelings toward a film that portrays her parents' marriage in a very unpleasant light. Her mother in that movie is essentially just an obstacle keeping her father from June Carter. She calls the movie "sometimes true, sometimes just factual," but she doesn't resent the film, she says. "It is what it is." Which is to say, unpleasant to her though it may be, she recognizes the reality of the situation, harbors no delusions about the film, understands that she can't change it, and has resigned herself to it.

It would seem that either her stance toward the film is unacceptable to Moynihan or her concise way of phrasing it is. You've probably noticed how tiresome it is for me to keep rephrasing "I grasp the reality of the situation, I understand it's out of my hands, I know I can't change it, and even if it isn't pleasant to me, I have reconciled myself to it." Moynihan, though, is apparently insisting that this be spelled out in every event rather than conveying this sense of acceptance with such an "offensive" expression as "it is what it is."

The foregoing defense of the expression is no defense of McClellan's use of it, though. The above
elaborate encapsulations of recognition, resignation, and acceptance essentially imply, "it's not worth worrying about," which, despite the proclamations of certain authorities, is a perfectly reasonable response if the question concerned simply the speaker's feelings, as with Cowher and Cash. On the other hand, "it's not worth worrying about" is obviously not a reasonable position for the government to take in response to questions about economic data or wiretaps.

Why bother arguing such a point? Moynihan or Stockdale could, I expect, easily demolish my puny resistance with their superior knowledge and authority were the mood to strike them, and what other normal person would care anyway? These objections I brush aside and remember instead the expressive value of an idiom that, yes, may indeed be—or at least appear—a tautology but that, along with its brethren, is of such great use in coping with a range of unsought, undesired, yet unavoidable circumstances.

For if we banish "it is what it is," what justification remains for noting that "things are what they are" and "I am what I am"? And without such succinct summations of sentiment, can I count myself still as able to acknowledge the mess I've made of my life, accept it, and set those regrets aside in order to deal with the present, disappointing reality? Or to confront and accept my own flaws and limitations, neither deluding myself with visions of greatness nor succumbing to despair?

I am not what I wish I were. I am what I am. Circumstances are in many ways not what I wish they were, but we cannot undo the past. Things are what they are. And as I finish yet another tardy post, the seclusion of Moynihan's article behind a subscriber wall (new since the time I started this post, weeks ago) is not at all what I would wish for. Instead, it is what it is.