Why It Is What It Isn’t


Screen Shot 2015-09-19 at 12.54.37 AM“…The problem with “It is what it is” is that it abdicates responsibility, shuts down creative problem solving, and concedes defeat. A leader who says “It is what it is” is a leader who faced a challenge, couldn’t overcome it, and explained away the episode as an inevitable, unavoidable force of nature (“We are at the mercy of the gods”). Replace “It is what it is” with “This resulted because I failed to do ____” and you get an entirely different discussion….”

I hate the phrase It is what it is. When someone uses that term around me, I cringe.  To me, it is the ultimate expression of ambiguity and well, just shut up about the situation because it’s beyond my control so I don’t give a damn.  It’s society’s catch-phrase today. for avoiding excellence.  It is an excuse for failure. It is an excuse for cutting off communication, and letting the world fall in around you.  I read one article where the author said that when she hears people use the phrase, she wants to punch them.  She wrote:

“…The phrase “It is what it is” often means “Shut up and deal with it” when someone says it regarding a situation we can change. If we want to gain a sense of control over our lives, we need to insist on getting what we pay for, being treated well, and feeling worthy of other people’s best efforts. We need to speak up confidently, though kindly, when we’re getting less than we deserve. Saying “It is what it is” when something you bought doesn’t work the way it should, or you’re asked to sign a contract that goes against your best interests, or someone mistreats you, or you receive something that’s not up to par—that’s handing over control of your money, time, and self respect to people who don’t deserve it…”

It’s flippant.  It’s insulting.  It’s a slap in the face, of telling someone who wants to fix the situation that there is something terribly wrong with you, for refusing to accept life’s shit.  It’s a way of not taking responsibility for your own actions.  Oh, it is what it is, so I’ll just let the house burn down because there’s nothing I can do about it.  It is hurtful and dismissive.  It is cruel and heartless.  It can cut to the quick.  It also becomes an excuse for not taking care of the problems in one’s life.  If a person is a Christian, I swear it is the ultimate dismissal of the power of God, the miracle working power of the Lord.

I was reading where it is also the stoic acceptance of the limits of life, and an expression of gratitude.  What? Stoicism required a goodly amount of intellectual maturity.  The mature adult knows who and what they are and recognized the limits of what they can do in life.  They also recognize their faults.  By saying it is what it is, you are saying, well, I’m not going to bother dealing with my faults.

There are those who say it is the opposite of tilting at windmills.  Coming from someone who firmly believes in tilting at windmills, having knocked over my fair share, I know you can change outcomes – at times.  I am a compulsive watcher of ID.  There is a profile where a college student is murdered.  Cops give up on it, and the case went cold for over20 years.  Her best friend decided she was not going to take no for an answer and let it go.  She was basically told it is what it is, and let it go.  Instead, she went out and earned a private investigators license.  She learned how to work with cops.  She learned how to milk the press. She manipulated and agitated long enough that, after over 2 decades, the person who murdered her best friend is now in prison for life. If she had said it is what it is, a murderer would still be walking the streets of Dallas.

“…Here are a bunch of clich’s, all of which are apt: You are in charge of your life. You hold the steering wheel. Why should you settle for less in your life because you don’t want to rock the boat? Zen platitudes like “It is what it is” and “be grateful for what you have” work when you’re facing the inevitable—they don’t work when you have even the smallest possibility of making a change for the better. …”

It says, because things are what they are, it isn’t worth changing anything, even when it could be changed.

“…”Because things are as they are, it isn’t worth trying to make them different.” This fatal non sequitur isn’t simply an excuse for inaction, it’s a lionization of inaction. It treats the man of inaction as the clear-eyed rationalist. But no clear eyed rationalist looks at what is and decides that what is could not and should not be improved purely on the observation. After all, why shouldn’t he take action about what is? If things should be better, he should take action precisely because it is what it is….”

There is a difference between accepting a difficult situation and dealing with it, and using the cliche so that you don’t need to do anything.  The late, great columnist and writer William Safire observed how it is being used to cut off discussions, rather like ‘no comment’.  By using it, you are shutting people up so they will not discuss an issue.

“…But another tautophrase intended to cut off further debate or questioning carries a powerful note of finality. The linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, whose book on right-wing rhetoric is coming in June, steered me to Chapter 19, Verse 22 of the Gospel according to John. The Roman Pontius Pilate, asked to amend the words he had ordered inscribed on Jesus’ cross, rejected all objection with “What I have written I have written.”…”

In other words, Pontius Pilate told the Romans to write, and hang the following on the Cross where Christ was being crucified – it is what it is.  It was used to silence any discussion of why an innocent man – the only truly innocent and sinless person ever –  was being executed. To me, that is chilling.  I am having this person murdered because it is what it is. It was an abdication of all humanity and decency.  It became the ultimate expression of the phrase.

“…This was a mere piece of obstinacy. Pilate knew that he had prostituted his office in condemning Jesus, and he revenged himself for weak compliance by ill-timed mulishness. A cool-headed governor would have humoured his difficult subjects in such a trifle, as a just one would have been inflexible in a matter of life and death. But this man’s facile yielding and his stiff-necked obstinacy were both misplaced. ‘So I will, so I command. Let my will suffice for a reason,’ was what he meant. He had written his gibe, and not all the Jews in Jewry should make him change.

But his petulant answer to the rulers’ request for the removal of the offensive placard carried in it a deeper meaning, as the Title also did, and as the people’s fierce yell, ‘His blood be on us and on our children,’ did. Possibly the Evangelist had some thought of that sort in recording this saying; but, at all events, I venture to take a liberty with it which I should not do if it were a word of God’s, or if it were given for our instruction. So I take it now as expressing in a vivid way, and irrespective of Pilate’s intention, the thought of the irrevocable past….”

What a comment.  It is the ultimate in selfishness.

“…Pilate’s answer illustrates the mixture of obstinacy and relentlessness, which Philo says was characteristic of him. His own interests are not at stake, so he will have his way: where he had anything to fear or to gain he could be supple enough. A shrewd, practical man of the world, with all a Roman official’s contemptuous impartiality and severity, and all the disbelief in truth and disinterestedness which the age had taught him, he seems to have been one of the many with whom self-interest is stronger than their convictions, and who can walk uprightly when to do so is easy, but fail in the presence of serious difficulty and danger….”

It was also designed to insult the Jews.  Let’s face it, it is what it is, can be terribly insulting.  While it is a shallow attempt at being insightful and philosophical, it exposes the user’s indifference, obstinate, and inability to even consider other options.  It is a phrase that allows no discussion, no hope, and no solution, even when a solution is possible. Sure, it sounds good, but I’d rather be the one tilting at windmills.  Every once in awhile, you knock one down, or as James T. Kirk once said, following the death of Spock, “There are always possibilities.”

“…“I don’t believe in the no-win scenario,” Kirk says. “As your teacher, Mr. Spock, is fond of saying, I like to think there always are…possibilities.”

So we see that Kirk’s earlier reply to Saavik — his implication that the test is not meant to measure the cadet’s ability to rescue the civilians, but to assess the cadet’s composure in the face of certain death — is both a sincere defense of the test’s lesson and a winking acknowledgement of its failure. Kirk is not interested in measuring his performance as he fails to do the impossible. His goal is making the impossible possible….”

There are always possibilities.  Just don’t use that damn it is what it is phrase around me very often.  Oh, you can, but when you do, it’s trite, flippant, and just plain rude.