Is it what it is?

Redundant phrases like “it is what it is” and “you do you” promote apathy

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Photo and art work by Nikki Luna

Ellie Ritter

One of the first things about which I remember learning in Christopher Simony’s Advanced American Literature class was one of his pet peeves: the expression “it is what it is.”

Simony explained to us his linguistic doctrine against using the phrase: not only is it redundant, he said, but it shows apathy as well. Simony is not alone in his belief.

In 2006, New York Times op-ed writer William Safire published a piece in which he coined the term “tautophrase” – based on the Latin root “tauto” for redundant – in response to the emergence of sayings like “it is what it is” and “you do you.”

The issue with these expressions is that they promote an apathetic, ignorant, and even narcissistic culture among teenage millennials.

Safire compares “it is what it is” to a “perpetual shrugging-off” of certain subjects, and couldn’t be any more spot-on. Many dissenters claim that the expression is used to get to the point, but too often, tautophrases simplify situations and avoid deep thinking.

Imagine having a conversation with a friend about an existential topic (because don’t we all?), like what the meaning of life actually is.

You ask what they think, eliciting a meager “eh, it is what it is.”

In this scenario, the tautophrase limits the potential of the conversation by leading you and your friend to just accept things, rather than to question them in an insightful way.

Even worse, though, are situations where the tautophrase creates a disheartening sense of apathy from its deliverer. For example, imagine you’re talking to your friend about a recent, sudden death in your family.

“It’s so upsetting – I just don’t understand how something like this could happen,” you say.

“Well, you know, it is what it is.” Oh, right – of course.

“It is what it is” effectively stops the conversation – whether it’s discussing a tough situation or having a philosophical debate – encouraging people to just move on.

Simony credits the rise of these phrases in part to a growing laziness that new generations seem to hold. Although he believes it’s an “organic” process, he acknowledges the role that technology holds in linguistic development.

“I think part of it has to do with ‘meme culture’ and the ’emoji generation,’ so to speak,” he said. “Each generation has its own linguistic changes, and this generation seems to be leaning towards apathy and laziness.”

When more modern utterances like “you do you” are added to the list of tautophrases, our culture encourages more than just apathy. Instead, we begin to promote the narcissism for which our generation is so often critiqued.

Although many argue that “you do you” promotes individuality, it does so in a way that leads people to act without considering implications or consequences. “You do you” not only ignores potential issues, but also encourages people to see themselves as faultless.

Colson Whitehead, another op-ed writer for the New York Times, wrote an article agreeing with Safire, but focusing on “you do you.” The “life-affirming chestnut,” as Whitehead puts it, is “affection conferred by another person: a ‘+1,’ wrapped inside a fav, tucked inside a like.”

“You do you” tells someone that they should be themselves just because they are great. Doing this, however, not only shows indifference, but also ignores the fact that sometimes, people just have bad plans. If someone asked whether they should lie or tell the truth, would we just tell them to “do them”?

Similarly, as Whitehead points out, the phrase “game recognizes game” promotes arrogance by sneakily reflecting a love of oneself. Whitehead claims that “it fixes the observed in his or her place while flattering the speaker: I’m calling you out for possessing a particular set of skills, for I, too, am blessed with those very same skills.”

These sayings are the result of a stubborn and simplified youth culture. Not only are the phrases disinterested in the subject matter, but they also promote a grandiosity for which our generation is known.

Maybe it’s time we begin to care about what we’re saying.