The Perils of Hyperbole

Hyperbole Sign

Hy-per-bol-e (n) A figure of speech in which exaggeration is used for emphasis or effect. [FD]

Hyperbole is handy in conversation and public speaking, I can tell you that I am so tired I could sleep for a week.  Well, no I can’t really do that, but you’ll get the message and I don’t have to tell you how much or how little sleep I’ve had in the past 48 hours.  I can offer an opinion that you packed too many clothes for a week’s vacation by saying this suitcase weighs a ton.  OK, it doesn’t…it’s just inconveniently heavy.  Hyperbole can be a useful shorthand, but it should come with some cautionary stickers attached.

Hyperbole can distort conversation and discussion.   Suppose our hypothetical Senator Sludgepump has voted to eliminate the Food and Drug Administration, to abolish the Federal Reserve, to allow 10 year old children to work in coal mines, and to let the FBI investigate the records of public libraries.  This record isn’t going to endear him to me.  However, if I were to describe him as The Worst Congressman  Since Preston Brooks does my hyperbole obfuscate my more serious point — that a person who supports egregious labor practices and encourages the endangerment of personal privacy isn’t someone I would recommend, and that his philosophy is detrimental to good governance?  It does, especially  if we start comparing Sludgepump to Brooks, or to Harding’s Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall and lose sight of the policy issues involved. * See some excellent nominees in the comments section!

Hyperbole tends to dramatize issues beyond their rational level of importance.   Conservatives are beginning to suffer some ridicule for their espousal of the notion that the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi is a huge issue.  [RMM audio] One of the obvious problems with hyperbole in political discussion is that as in the situation above, comparisons are required, and even if the conversation doesn’t get bogged down in comparative issues of little utility we still have to slog through historical references and evaluations which may (and often may not) have much historical relevance.  Was the attack one of the worst incidents I can recall? (former vice president Cheney)

The next logical step would be to find out what other items might be contained on that Worst Ever list?  Again, instead of discussing the issues related to diplomatic security, the conversation is shifted to comparative analyses of attacks on U.S. missions in the modern era. [List since 1958]

Hyperbole imposes the use of inappropriate superlatives.  Rhetorical shorthand which distorts or dramatizes issues and events nearly always relies on terms like Best, Worst, Greatest, Most, etc.  No, the Affordable Care Act probably isn’t the best law ever enacted, nor is it likely the worst.  Superlatives ought to send up flags that what we are hearing is someone’s opinion.   If something surpasses or is alleged to be superior to all other items in a category of things, we are in opinion territory.   A person may hold that the Supreme Court decision in Marbury v. Madison was among the best ever rendered by that institution, others have argued that it significantly altered the course of U.S. history, and not in a good way.  Opinion should be noticed for what it is — opinion, not necessarily demonstrable fact.

Hyperbole may be useful for directing attention, but not for responsible discourse.   Hyperbole makes an excellent tease for cable news outlets, especially those seeking to prevent viewers from channel surfing during commercial breaks.  “Will Senator Sludgepump lose his seat??” teases the broadcaster, “stay tuned for our next segment…”  The next segment all too often pulls the curtain up revealing the hyperbole.  Sludgepump, it is revealed, has no credible opposition, holds a 52% favorable rating in his state, and has the backing of key donors.

Hyperbole also makes for some “high” drama during the Dueling Political Strategists’ segment of most cable offerings.  “The Dog Food  Ingredient Bill is the worst form of government over-reach imaginable,” squeals one of the participants. Meanwhile the opponent is eye-rolling and over-talking, repeating the mantra “But think of the valued family pets and distraught children…”  Neither one in this hypothetical is making much sense.

Would not a better format be to discuss how much information is needed by consumers in order to make judicious selections at the supermarket?  Must all ingredients be specified, or should consumers merely be informed of all ingredients?  Should some potentially dangerous ingredients be banned?  Should some ingredients be preferred over others?  Consumers might find this discussion more informative than a debate about whether Senator Sludgepump will face backlash at the polls over his support of or opposition to the Dog Food Ingredients Bill.  There’s at least one more reason to be careful with hyperbole.

There are people who will believe hyperbole in the face of all evidence to the contrary.  A young man walked into a terminal at LAX last week, with a Smith and Wesson M&P 15, caliber .556 purchased in Van Nuys.   He used it to shoot TSA employees:

“The gunman was carrying a signed, handwritten note in his duffel bag that said he wanted to “instill fear into their traitorous minds,” said David Bowdich, special agent in charge of the Counterterrorism Division in the FBI‘s Los Angeles office.

“His intent was very clear in his note,” Bowdich told reporters Saturday. “In that note he indicated his anger and his malice toward the TSA officers.” [LAT]

Relatives weren’t sure where he got the ideas.  I think we can make some intelligent conjectures, most of which will have something to do with right wing hyperbole.  Unfortunately, they might also connect to the hyperbole that drove Timothy McVeigh, Anders Behring Breivik, James Adkisson, Richard Poplawski, and James W. von Brunn to assault their fellow human beings.

Hyperbole is a rhetorical device, our responsibility is to exercise enough restraint so that it doesn’t inform the actions of those who decide to transform rhetoric into horrific reality.

Updated: with corrections on 11/07/13

1 Comment

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One response to “The Perils of Hyperbole

  1. I usually foul-up my attempts at serious comments, let’s see if I can figger it out for some cheerful pedantic piffle. So, Harding’s Sec. of the Interior was Albert Fall, not Albert Ball, and Preston Brooks was still a Representative when he caned Sumner. And Brooks wouldn’t have been the worst Senator, anyway. Not with Theodore Bilbo, Joe McCarthy, and the now-forgotten Robert Reynolds of NC, who several writers suggested would have been the obvious choice for Fuehrer if fascism had hit America.

    All of which shows your point about hyperbole and how easily it lets you gvet distracted from your main point.