Clichés and Practices

January 3, 2008

At my dissertation defense one of the committee members asked me what the relationship was between a cultural prohibition such as, “Thou shalt not kill” and that culture’s actual practices of killing and conspicuously not killing. This led to what my friend Robert Shields calls a “shot in the head moment.” I froze, then finally babbled something. After a couple of years studying the relationship between words and practices, I knew just enough to know not only that I had no good answer for that question, but that it would take me years to come up with one.

I still don’t have one, but I have some more ideas now. (So, thanks teach.  That was an inspiring question.) One example struck me this morning. For no particular reason the phrase, “The customer is always right” popped into my head.

It’s very easy and common to move back and forth between a catch phrase like this and a facile analysis of the culture to which it belongs. One time at a local Chinese restaurant I overheard a white patron giving to his family what I understood to be a rendition of the sermon he had just heard, the gist of which was a condemnation of a contemporary youth culture whose members like to mouth the phrase, “It’s all good.” There followed a semi-elaborate genealogy of that phrase intended to show that someone inclined to say, “It’s all good” surely has no moral standards, i.e. has no real conception of good vs. evil. I’ve found that it’s not considered good manners to argue with the table next to you at Chinese restaurants, so I didn’t speak up. I wanted to ask some questions, though, as my initial reaction was to find this whole bit rather racist, if fairly subtly. In any case, this instance comes to my mind when I try to remember that the links between phrases and practices can be more difficult to discern than we typically think.

With that said, “The customer is always right” really wonderfully captures at least the stereotyped version of American consumer culture. It’s great to imagine the apochryphal origin of this phrase: an employee has had a disagreement with a customer, and appeals to the boss to settle who is right; the boss responds, “The customer is always right.” How evocative! To say this another way: the boss is saying, “We will not play that game. In your other relationships it may matter who is right and who is wrong. But in these practices, we do not determine whether the customer is justified in his wishes or even his purported facts. Qua customer he transcends those categories. Now go put the butter on his milk duds.” [This is a Simpsons reference I have made. “Swim, my pretties.]

It is so easy to wax grand sociological about such a phrase. What could better capture the rule of money said to drive the American ethos? Why does the customer transcend rightness and wrongness? Not because he shops by divine right, but because he has money, which he is willing to give to the business if his desires, however ridiculous, are met. Contrast this with French and German stores in which “the customer is always ignored,” in whose countries the cultural legacy of a different sort of class structure is often said to linger. Such insights, though they charm me, too, are clearly the making of yet another lame article in some political periodical.

The thing is, I think phrases such as, “The customer is always right” are important, and do have effects. And understanding this cliché/praxis relationship could be helpful in working out some of the hermeneutic issues we’ve been pondering. But how to sort this out?