Tautologies are often used as a nasty, passive-aggressive form of manipulation.
What’s a tautology, you ask?
A tautology is a self-referencing true statement. But the only thing that makes a tautology into a true statement is the fact that it references itself. It is semantically true, but it offers no new information.
“It is what it is.”
“You gotta do what you gotta do.”
“If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be.”
Tautologies can also be statements that predict all possible scenarios. For instance, it’s not much of a prediction to say that “Either the incumbent senator will keep his seat, or a challenger will take his place.” That statement is guaranteed to be true because one of those two things is guaranteed to happen, but you haven’t conveyed any real information by speaking it.
In mathematics, the equation x = x is a tautology. Note that it doesn’t matter what number we plug in for x. x could be 4 or 10 or 13 457 because it will always be true that 4 = 4 and 10 = 10 and 13 457 = 13 457. Even though we can write the equation x = x to our heart’s content, (and y = y, a = a and so forth), we really haven’t learned anything new just by writing it.
Dictionary.com defines a tautology as, “needless repetition of an idea, especially in words other than those of the immediate context, without imparting additional facts or clarity.” I couldn’t have put it better myself. Tautologies are empty, vacuous statements. Tautologies are always true, 100% of the time. If there exists even the smallest chance that your statement could be false, it’s not a tautology.
Just as the equation x = x can be solved with any number, the phrase, “It is what it is” can be applied to any object or event, real or fictional. Is there anything in this universe that isn’t what it is? We can apply it to everything! An apple is what it is. A computer is what it is. Note that we don’t even have to be discussing real objects. A unicorn is what it is. A Nassai is what it is. What’s a Nassai? A Nassai is a fictional creature from one of my stories, and it is what it is.
The interesting thing about language is that statements often have two or more potential meanings; there’s the literal meaning and the contextual meaning. For instance, if after a long day at the park, I said, “I’m starving!” you know I don’t mean that I am literally in danger of starvation but rather that I’m very hungry. You automatically apply a context, and you don’t even think about it. If your boss says, “Everyone showed up to the meeting,” you know he doesn’t mean that literally every person in the world showed up to the meeting, even though this is the literal interpretation of the phrase. Your brain adds context without you having to think about it, and tautologies take advantage of this fact.
On a gut level, everyone knows that tautologies are always true, even if they’ve never heard the word. Manipulative people understand this and use it to their advantage. Consider something like this: “Even though your contract specified an annual raise, we won’t be able to give you one this year because of the lousy economy, but what can you do? It is what it is.” (To be clear, I’ve heard those exact words.) When someone says that, he isn’t trying to tell you that a lousy economy is a lousy economy – which would be the literal interpretation – he’s using “It is what it is” as a euphemism for “This is not a situation that we can change.” That’s a very clever verbal trick. The truth of the first statement can’t be questioned – a tautology is always true – but the truth of the second statement can only be verified by investigation. We can make inquiries like, “The Toronto Star just reported multi-million dollar bonuses for several of our higher ups. Couldn’t the funds to pay for raises – and thus honour the contract – come from a portion of those?” (I worked for a huge financial institution. And yes, they did post eight-figure bonuses after denying raises to the people in our office.)
The implied statement “This isn’t a situation that we can change” could be true, or it could be false – we won’t know until we examine all the facts – but by making you associate that statement with a tautology, the speaker has subtlety conveyed the idea that you shouldn’t question him on this point.
The speaker didn’t say, “We’re not going to give you raises, and there’s nothing we can do about that;” he said, “We’re not going to give you raises, but what can you do? It is what it is.” A tautology is true by definition; so if you want to take a contrary position, anything you say automatically becomes false by definition. You lose the argument before you even begin.
If you can convince people to associate a course of action with a tautology, then that course of action becomes right by definition, and any opposition to it becomes wrong by definition.
That’s why they’re manipulative.
Hey, looking for some great fiction? Check out Symbiosis, the book reviewers have called the illegitimate love child of Star Trek and Buffy.
Now available on Kindle
It’s had some great reviews!