You’re facing a situation that seems intractable, or you’ve just endured an experience that you can’t adequately make sense of. Facing this cognitive discomfort, what do you do? Ambiguity, the misunderstood bedfellow of the equally misunderstood and ignored fluidity that qualifies (or is) life, demands quite a bit from you. It asks that you accept realities which are bound to be, among other things, complex, upsetting, confusing threats to an important part of your worldview. In other words, it thrusts you into the unknown, forcing you to face something that you don’t really want to think about anymore for any number of intellectual and emotional reasons. The overarching confrontation seems simple enough to describe: your own ignorance. Few of us are eager to admit ignorance in any situation, and even when we are, we are unlikely to admit, let alone imagine, the scope of our ignorance. Any encounter with this wicked beast doubles as an encounter with our own mortality, hence why it upsets us on such an existential scale. Death is the epitome of our ignorance, so we really don’t want to dwell on it for too long, right?
Just try it. Imagine death. Imagine your death. Impossible, right? To summon yourself out of existence. Thinking about the reality of death doesn’t make any sense, because death is the end of the possibility to do so, so it’s paradoxical to ever get close enough to that unknown to have anything meaningful to take away from it. It takes away everything meaningful to you and gives nothing back. When death finally becomes a known, there is no unknown left to imagine. There is nothing left to imagine. There is nothing left. There is nothing. And nothing – in itself – is also conceivable.
Okay, so that logic is going nowhere. Let’s redirect ourselves back to the title of this post and think about the increased use of the cliche, “it is what it is.” (And when I say “increased use,” I’m speaking from my own experience and sensitivity to hearing it in a variety of circles.) First, I reject the ontological simplicity of this essentialist nonsense. Nothing is what it is. Linguistically alone, as soon as you assign any arbitrary sound to something and claim that your signifier is the signified, you’re misinterpreting the act you’ve just performed. Ushering any thing-in-itself to communicable social order is reducing it to something intelligible, not capturing it in its entirety (which would be impossible for anything that’s alive); the only thing that is in this situation is the symbol, the stand-in for whatever truly is independent of our human sense-making. But even symbols aren’t what they are, depending on the situation and the players involved.
More important perhaps is the cliche’s practical use. When someone utters the phrase, their rhetorical imperative is to dismiss further conversation (as well as any internal dialogue, which may be the primary purpose). “It is what it is,” therefore, there’s nothing more to be said about it. Let’s move on.
Why and when do people surrender in this way? The statement peremptorily closes off all further emotions and thoughts. No more examination or exploration. No more potential complicity on our part. No more agency. No more understanding.
It’s a statement that feels like it’s pervading our cultural discourse with greater frequency and potency. On the one hand, it’s an interesting alternative to, “that sucks but there’s nothing you can do about it,” except that it removes all agents from the scenario. “It is what it is” resonates with its fate-insisting tone, which exonerates us from any personal responsibility in an unfair society. In matters that should not be left to fate, this should not be a suitable response. If you want to pull out it out of the bag to talk about athletic competition, okay, but if you want to apply it to something like black America’s relationship with law enforcement, think again.
It’s too easy to turn to this fatalistic mentality and let real, changeable circumstances persist. And when our culture imposes this hegemonic message on itself, we might want to speak up and change the conversation. That might be what it is now, but it can always become something else. Something better.