A while back, when a number of people were discussing what Twitter is “for”—that is, what purpose it serves, why people use it—I noted that Twitter is “for” moral positioning. It’s a venue on which you can demonstrate to your in-group that you are a moral person and believe the right thing. The more vociferously you stake out your position—the greater venom you deploy against your enemies, the nastier you get during a Two Minutes Hate—the more moral you are.
While reading this important essay by John McWhorter on race and “moving on,” I discovered there’s a fancy linguistic term for such utterances: researchers refer to them as “phatics.” Here’s McWhorter:
However, the idea that America needs a grand conversation about race remains gestural rather than pragmatic. Linguists have a term, phatic, for utterances that only serve a social function, rather than conveying information. “How are you?” is the classic example: one is less interested in knowing the answer than in simply acknowledging the presence of the other person. The idea of a national conversation on race—which quick reflection confirms could never happen and would solve no problem, anyway—only makes sense as phatic. The content of the utterance is less the point than its intent.