I mean, is the Pope catholic? No-one can possibly disagree, and therein lies the power of the truism. A truism is, you see, a statement which is “true” by virtue of nothing more than its’ own grammatical structure. But truisms can be much more than meaningless trivia, in the right hands. Or should I say the wrong hands. Let me explain.
Generally the purpose of a simple truism is either to reinforce a prior argument, or to prepare the listener for the next one. Clearly the truism deployed must be somehow relevant, and in context, but here’s the thing – the listener is now much more inclined to believe the author. After all, he has just said something which is undeniably true, he has their attention, and his credentials and authority as a right-thinking individual are well on the way to being established in the mind of the listener. This is especially true if the message implied by the truism is one which the listener is predisposed to accept.
Example 1: Let’s take a closer look at “A calorie is a calorie”.
This happens to be a statement often deployed by the fizzy drinks lobby – and we should ask ourselves why this is so. We already know it’s true, as it stands, but is there some underlying meaning which is not quite so true?
When we hear this particular truism, we begin to assume that our own bodies do not distinguish between a calorie drunk from a can of sugary soda, and that same calorie from eating a piece of fruit. After all, a calorie is a calorie, right? Unfortunately for us, this hidden message happens to be entirely, dangerously, false (1), as the quality of what you are eating will determine what, and how many calories, your appetite drives you to eat next.
Even simple small truisms possess the power to cloak a rather large lie.
Example 2: Another favourite: ‘sugar may be consumed in moderation’.
This doesn’t appear to be a truism at first glance, but wait! The phrase ‘in moderation’ means, by definition, a safe level. Now we can re-phrase the statement as: ‘It’s safe to consume a safe level of sugar’. As newly recruited CokeSpeak hounds, you will notice it distills down, in the end, to yet another simple truism which we are inclined to swallow whole. And the always-present underlying message? ‘Just keep on eating the sugar guys – in moderate amounts’. Regrettably no one has yet defined what a moderate amount of sugar actually is, but hey, who cares. And by the way, it’s also safe to consume a safe level of Plutonium! Perhaps Miss Piggy from Sesame Street had it right when she offered the advice to ‘Never eat more than you can lift’.
Example 3: The last training example is the truly beautiful ‘There are no bad foods, only bad diets’.
This feels somehow like a truism, and certainly we are all pre-disposed to believe it. Someone seems to be helpfully offering us a re-definition of the common phrase ‘bad foods’, one which those of us with a sweet tooth (including me!) would dearly love to be true: that they don’t exist! Equally helpfully, we are offered a substitute phrase ‘bad diets’ which has the happy consequence of absolving Big Food from any responsibilities in the matter, since diets are of course the responsibility of us as individuals.
We can call this an aspirational truism, in that we are predisposed to accept it as a truism since it accords with our own desires. Unfortunately it’s also a false truism (2). There are indeed bad foods, lots and lots of them. The hidden message here is: Carry on eating whatever we sell you. It can’t possibly be bad food, because there are no bad foods, because I just said so!
False aspirational truisms are so powerful that they can stand alone as a statement of, apparently, absolute truth with no further language-strangling arguments tacked on to them. For example a new position statement from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) uses this exact tactic, claiming (in terms): ‘there is no such thing as good and bad food, only good and bad diets’.
False truisms can make no logical or scientific or even common sense, given a moment’s thought and a little knowledge. Bad foods definitely do exist, for example food that has gone off or is contaminated, poisonous mushrooms, pufferfish, fast foods containing heavily fried fats and trans fats, a can of coke containing 10 tsp refined sugar all in one hit…and the list goes on.
However, Big Food PR rarely allows facts to spoil a good story. Having thus gained credibility with us, the next step to creating perfect CokeSpeak is to rid us of the will to resist their hypnotic message – using mogadon (tranquiliser) words
(1) See ‘Fat Chance – the bitter truth about sugar’ Robert H Lustig MD. Ch2, p9.
(2) False truisms defined here as ‘a swindle in which the preposterous is peddled in the guise of the obvious’. (Quite delicious, says Alice).