Modern times: Five slippery words

“It is what it is” may sound cool, but this loaded little phrase reveals a lot about anger-averse culture

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True story: A few years ago, a friend of mine entered a fast-food restaurant and ordered a bathtub-sized bucket of fried chicken for a work function. Cashier: “For here or to go?” Customer: “Do you really think I’m going to sit here and eat 50 pieces of fried chicken?” Cashier: “I don’t know your life.”

I love this story. I waited excitedly for “I don’t know your life” to rocket through the vernacular, burning up “Talk to the hand.” But some phrases have legs and others do not. And as evidence, if I were so inclined, I might now conclude this paragraph with a leggy kicker: “It is what it is.”

“It is what it is” is an unshakable, burrowing tic in language. With 1.6 million hits on Google, the e-shrug is a staple of online comments and has been a colloquial standard for at least a decade.

Hey, Kobe Bryant, how do you feel about that rift with Shaquille O’Neal? “It is what it is.” Michael Ignatieff, is your new book about politics? “It is what it is, a very personal book.” One White House press secretary explained that Dick Cheney’s shooting of a deer-like friend and George W. Bush’s domestic-spying program are what they are. Next question.
“It is what it is” is a slippery little sentence, usually meant in one of two ways: as a calming, Anglo version of “Que sera, sera” or a brusquer “Suck it up.” But in practice, the two meanings seem to meld together, creating confusion: “It is what it is” passes for a Buddhist mantra, yet it’s the ultimate deflector, a linguistic door slam.

If you’re complaining to a colleague about your bad boss and she says, “It is what it is,” the text appears to be an offer of comforting perspective: Take it as it comes, my friend. But the subtext is something else: Please, God, shut up, for I cannot bear your incessant whining one second longer. Though the sentiment may be swaddled in the sheer scarves and patchouli scent of a chillaxin’ hippie hug, its punch is aggressive and silencing. “It is what it is” tells you to care less, which is, of course, the most infuriating thing to hear when you care a lot.
Any phrase as flexible as IIWII feels inherently meaningless, and one should always be suspicious of a sentence that sounds incomplete without “man” at the end.

I just can’t stomach an ethos whose personification is the hang-ten–ing, bongo-playing Matthew McConaughey. Between romcoms, McConaughey named his production company J.k. livin (“the J’s for just, the K’s for keep”), a phrase that is the tagalong sibling of IIWII, the one who’s less bitter than “Whatever” and more annoying than “It’s all good.”
Of course a Zen outlook is a worthy ideal, and IIWII seems, on the surface, to uphold a kind of tolerance. It’s an appeasing catchphrase for a new world order where a million different perspectives are rubbing up against each other at any given moment. But in practice, is withholding judgement that useful, or even possible? Burka? We-e-ell…I guess it is what it is. Female circumcision? Uh, no, it shouldn’t be what it is.

But mostly, when I hear IIWII (thanks for the insight, Bell Canada IT guy who cannot solve my email problem), I smell sheer phoniness. It’s a clue that something is unsaid. Let’s play a game: Every IIWII uttered should be followed by a second phrase — we can call it The Truth — much as in that game where “in bed” is tacked on to every fortune found in a cookie.

So when Al Gore, having lost the American presidency over a technicality, says, “I strongly disagreed with the Supreme Court decision and the way in which they interpreted and applied the law. But I respect the rule of law, so it is what it is,” he should add, “And what it is is total BS!”

IIWII is an anger snuffer, and that’s not healthy. Psychologists at Carnegie Mellon University studied anger in 1,000 subjects two months after the 9/11 attacks. They discovered that those who were angry felt more certain and more in control than those whose driving emotion was fear. Anger actually makes people optimistic because they’re forced to strategize to defuse it. Anger promotes action; IIWII asks only for passive acceptance.
Researchers at Harvard have tracked 268 men for 72 years, embarking on one of the world’s most comprehensive longitudinal studies, hoping to discover what makes people happy. Psychiatrist George Vaillant, who has led the project for more than four decades, found that over a lifetime, those who could express their anger constructively (but not in a Raging Bull kind of way) were more successful personally and professionally.

For women, of course, anger is still the most scandalous emotion; good girls and mothers soothe, they don’t disturb. But women who avoid anger should take note of Vaillant’s recent comments: “Negative emotions are often crucial for survival.… [They] narrow and focus attention so we can concentrate on the trees instead of the forest.” For this reason, Vaillant criticizes the rise of psycho-pharmaceuticals. While mood-altering drugs have been a salvation for many who struggle with mental-health issues, nothing says IIWII like a big dose of Paxil.

But eradication — alone or en masse — of a key emotion like anger is symbolically troubling: What historical push toward betterment, toward change, didn’t pass through the fires of fury first?

This past spring, we all watched the contraband images of men and women taking to the streets of Tehran after the sham elections. New York Times columnist Roger Cohen sent alarming, elegant dispatches from the streets, where he described ordinary women pushing back against riot police, admonishing the men around them, “Why are you sitting there? Get up! Get up!” It was an anti-IIWII moment, or a reinvention of the axiom, replacing its complacency with urgency. It is what it is, and it is not acceptable.
Have I ever used this loaded little phrase? Yes, when talking to my mother. She gets a lot of mileage out of IIWII and defends it when I roll my eyes. For her, in a difficult time, those five words of simplicity provide some comfort. She told me that it reminds her that some things cannot be changed, and she takes solace in the permission to accept her circumstances.

The language that calms us is, in the end, intensely personal. Maybe IIWII works for you. I don’t know your life.