Fake Warren Buffett tweets and how to use them to do semiotics.
If you’re seeing a lot of platitudes issuing from what seems to be a fake Warren Buffett Twitter account & you are wondering how to extract any value from moral pronouncements that you could easily have come up with yourself, here’s a technique from semiotics that I use all the time. This can be applied to any statement that strikes you as self-evidently true.
Form a sentence that expresses the exact opposite of the platitude and ask yourself if that opposite is also true.
Usually it will lead you somewhere more interesting than the original truism. Examples:
‘Spend less money & more time on your kids” becomes “Kids benefit when their parents have money to invest in them” and “kids need unsupervised time away from their parents in order to grow”.
“Follow your dreams” becomes “Try to be more rational” and “Following your dreams leads to castles in the air” and “Follow your dreams is what people tell you to do whenever they’ve made a very economically secure position for themselves but they like the idea of someone else taking risks that they aren’t prepared to”. The rhetoric of following dreams is highly culturally specific.
“You are not your job” becomes “Whatever you spend most of your time doing is what you are”.
Some truisms are so obviously true that finding the opposite is very difficult, but that’s a reason why you should try because not much is universal.
“Hold doors open” becomes “Turn around, go back outside and find out who is excluded from entering even though you thought you were doing enough by holding the door” or “Find out why some people don’t want to come in”.
“Exercise and eat healthy” becomes “Coercive healthism is a tool of capitalist oppression” and “Suicide is the most fundamental of all human rights” (I like Thomas Szasz on suicide and mental health issues.)
“Say thank you” becomes “Ask whether the person you are thanking is the person who did you a favour”. For example, don’t thank the Twitter account WarrenBuffet99 because it’s someone pretending to be Warren Buffett and the real WB is probably not very pleased. Or if you are in the habit of saying “thank God” (a turn of phrase that I use myself), pause and ask yourself if it was actually God who helped you out or whether you should be thanking some human who just went out of their way for you.
“Remove clutter” becomes “Decluttering leads to landfill, doesn’t address the reasons why you accumulated the clutter in the first place and is the privilege of people who have more than they need”. Hoarding is an interesting phenomenon and it’s noticeable that when hoarders experience interventions and have their homes emptied for them, the homes usually fill right back up again. I read a terrific book on hoarding which suggested that hoarders outsource memory by attaching it to objects which then take on a value that’s not apparent to people who store memory differently.
Let’s be clear about why we are doing this. The truism-reversal technique is not just for the sake of being objectionable and it’s also not about you or your opinions being proved right, because the whole point is that nothing is incontrovertibly right. The reason why you want to do this is because it is intellectually challenging and will help you to reach and uncover insights that otherwise might have remained hidden.
I didn’t invent this technique and I’m not the only person who uses it. To learn more about it, look up the artist Jenny Holzer and her years-long project “Truisms” in which she conducts a deep philosophical and cultural analysis by finding statements which are self-evidently true and their opposites, which are often equally or even more true. If you’re in London, there’s an exhibition of Holzer’s truisms at Tate Modern right now: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/holzer-truisms-t03959
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