Rhetorical Overkill

Adolf Hitler portrait, bust, 3/4 facing right.

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As part of my critical thinking class, I teach a section on rhetoric. While my main concern is with teaching students how to defend against it, I also discuss how to use it. One of the points I make is that a risk with certain forms of rhetoric is what I call rhetorical overkill. This is  commonly done with hyperbole which is, by definition, an extravagant overstatement.

One obvious risk with hyperbole is that if it is too over the top, then it can be ineffective or even counterproductive. If a person is trying to use positive hyperbole, then going too far can create the impression that the person is claiming the absurd or even mocking the subject in question. For example, think of the over the top infomercials where the product is claimed to do  everything but cure cancer.  If the person is trying to use negative hyperbole, then going too far can undercut the attack by making it seem ridiculous. For example, calling a person a Nazi because he favors laws requiring people to use seat belts would seem rather absurd.

Another risk is that hyperbole can create an effect somewhat like crying “wolf”. In that tale, the boy cried “wolf” so often that no one believed him when the wolf actually came. In the case of rhetorical overkill, the problem is that it can create what might be dubbed “hyperbolic fatigue.” If matters are routinely blown out of proportion, this will tend to numb people to such terms. On a related note, if politicians and pundits routinely cry “Hitler” or “apocalypse” over lesser matters what words will they have left when the situation truly warrants such terms?

In some ways, this  is like swearing. While I am not a prude, I prefer to keep my swear words in reserve for situations that actually merit them. I’ve noticed that many people tend to use swear words in everyday conversations and I found this a bit confusing at first. After all, I have “hierarchy of escalation” when it comes to words, and swear words are at the top.  But, for many folks today, swear words are just part of everyday conversation (even in the classroom). So, when someone swears at me now, I pause to see if they are just talking normally or if they are actually trying to start trouble.

While I rarely swear, I do resent the fact that swear words have become so diluted and hence less useful to make a point quickly and directly. The same applies to extreme language-if we do not reserve it for extreme circumstances, then we diminish our language by robbing extreme words of their corresponding significance.

So, what the f@ck do you think?

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  1. Well, it’s not much to “f@king” think of, because you hardly made a definite point. Despite some quite evident remarks on the nature of tropes – and their purposelessness in some situations – the idea that it is “rhetorically unprofitable” to swear a lot is, well, “rhetorically unprofitable”.

    Assuming that your swearing pupils bring about mothers every two or three phrases they utter, it’s not because they take no notice of the rhetorical situation, but that they do not care, or that they are not interested (or mere habit). It could be worse, they interpret the situation in such manner that they consider the swearing parts “rhetorically appropriate”. However, I’ll go for the idea that the problem lays not in their misunderstanding of rhetorical principles (it’s not like they disregard “the audience’s accepted premises”), but of manner and tact and some other psychological traits.

    When it does pertain to the rhetorical situation which one fails to understand, rhetorical overkill is indeed bad, but this is a plain truism.

    Nevertheless, some very important issue could be drawn out of the article. It is, I think, and with all due respect, a vivid example of a “rhetorical underkill”.

  2. I too, feel that expletives have lost their ability to emphasise. In the same way that we are taught to write in a standard form of English and avoid dialect or slang, schools should possibly teach the difference between formal speaking and more relaxed speaking. There is a time and place for all types of communication.

  3. Ordinary foul language is just verbal grout by the rhetorically challenged. However it does not merely fill in the cracks between words but it has the effect of smearing like a bad tiling job. The ultimate fragging indulged in by the intelligentsia is the epithet ‘racist’ or ‘anti-semitic’ often as a Parthian shot. Is this rhetoric? No I think not because it is not very effective speech. It does not convince or persuade. Such a person has departed from reason to the over-populated area of vulgar abuse.

  4. I fail to see what’s wrong with using the extreme as a tool for the examination of truth. Might the rejection or assumption of (presumed) absurdity be specifically the mechanism of irrationality?

    For example, I often use the Nazi case. I ask people if the concentration camp executioner is right or wrong, then step by step take it to the camp guard, train engineer, storm trooper rounding up the Jews, and ultimately to the neighbor standing idly by.

    I ask people what is the difference between the average American of 1942 watching his Japanese neighbors being shipped off to (they’ve been told) a concentration camp, and the German family of the same era watching the Jew being “relocated”/”resettled”.

    Is an arbitrary line drawn between right and wrong _really_ any better than not having a line? What are the effects of a line that is not based on natural divisions?

    (And why does one need to “defend” against rhetoric? Why choose at any point not to examine or reexamine? …even if you think the other guy is a fool.)

  5. I’ve never quite fully understood arguments against cursing, excepting arguments for convenience (you’re just going to make things difficult for yourself and everyone if you fling a bunch of f@*#s around at a funeral). But it seems that the speaker and listener paying attention to context solves just about any other problem.

    After my parents got divorced, I found myself being divided between 2 radically different camps of people…those who cussed like sailors and a more “polite” crowd. But neither group seemed more difficult to understand than the other. The guys that used the expletives the most were still able to easily stress a point, even though he didn’t have more severe words to resort to. Inflection, body cues, just a little experience with the person.
    So, personally, it doesn’t seem like overuse of the words impacted communication negatively.

    As a person who likes to use course language often, I’ve more often run into people who just seemed to have a visceral “he-ought-not-have-said-that” type of reaction. It doesn’t seem fair to place that “ought-not” feeling on the speaker just because you choose to interpret the message in a way unintended by the speaker.

    My main point, I guess, is that it seems silly to me for a person to be in some way offended by the language of another when there’s nothing making it necessary that any word or group of words carry such weight.

  6. While there is a surly a long history to the rules of communication, the key objective would seem to be an effective exchange of ideas and ultimately something along the lines of harmonious collaboration.

    However, negative attitudes and hostilities are also something that needs to be effectively communicated, presumably to avoid hasty or excessive destruction.

    A direct insult would typically be seen as more hostile than a more generally expressed negative statement. And, I can see where the preferred words of direct insults, threats, and hostility would come be regarded as discordant and counterproductive. That is, certain kinds of hostile words can make a general statement feel very personal.

    So, I’ve spent some time thinking about why people would frequently choose potentially unproductive modes of communication. Mostly, it seems that people get tired of the rules and always having to reign things in. For mature adults, this is often about venting. For younger people, it seems there is a need to feel more mature by choosing words that children are discouraged from using, even though the style chosen often reveals immaturity.

    The thing is, do we really need to vent all the time? When is a person mature enough to stop trying to sound mature? And, what does it say when someone feels a need to insert hostile words into all forms of expression?

  7. Paul,

    Agreed. While I am not a grammar or language Nazi, I think there is value in formal writing. Or, to put it another way, professional writing and speaking. This, naturally enough, also corresponds to behavior.

    While this might seen as mere conservativism, sloppy writing, behavior and talking tends to lead to sloppy thinking. This is not to say that there is not a time and a place for relaxing, but it is to say that not all times and places are suitable for being so relaxed. For example, using the texting style and throwing in four letter words needlessly would hardly be the way to write a dissertation or business report.

  8. Michael,

    Good point. Rhetoric can have a certain artistry and style that places it far above mere vulgarity. This is not to say that vulgarity cannot have rhetorical uses, of course.

  9. Michael F,

    The convenience and practical arguments tend to be the best ones (“you should not swear at your job interview because doing so reduced your chances of being hired). Also, as you point out, people can show emphasis even when they swear most of the time. For example, if someone is swearing away at me while smiling and looking calm, I can tell his intent is different from a fellow who is swearing away with a wild look in his eyes.

    That said, it can present a challenge to communication in cases in which one does not know the person (and even when one does). Of course, the same point can be made in general when talking about communication.

    I don’t find swearing particularly offensive, however I do think that language is like clothing. I would not go teach my class wearing just my running shorts, likewise I would not say “that f@cker Descartes f@cking wrote some f@cking sh@t about some monkey f@cking skepticism” in class. While I am well aware that dress is a matter of convention, the idea is to show respect and professionalism. The same applies to language. Now, if swearing like a drunken monkey while being naked showed respect and professionalism, then that would be just fine. After all, it is not so much the means as the end that matters in this context.

  10. Very good question, but — in another rhetorical tradition — I challenge your premise. Defending against rhetoric? Even your instruction in that area, I’d argue, would be rhetorical, which does move us toward irony. But it depends on how you define rhetoric. For Aristotle, much of it was critical thinking, which probably merits our support. Or, better, from Isocrates, rhetoric seemed to be the responsible, ethical discourse of citizenship. But enough — I want key terms defined before offering my boring response. Thanks very much.

  11. When I first started teaching, I would overhear students swearing, but they would stop and even apologize when they noticed me. While this still happens, students seem more comfortable swearing in front of me, even during class.

    At first, it bothered me. After all, people usually swear to show anger, vent, defy authority, or to try to appear mature (as TesserID noted). However, I noticed that while students would swear, it was almost always just part of “normal” conversation without any clear attempt at any of these things. My current hypothesis is that many words that were “swear words” in my day (and recently) are now just normal words considered appropriate for everyday use. This is probably just the normal “evolution” of language and is probably comparable to the changes in acceptable behavior. For example, think of how mobile and smart phones have changed acceptable behavior.

  12. Charles,

    I should have defined my terms. :). In this context, I’m taking rhetoric in the narrow sense of linguistic devices intended to affect the emotions. This is in contrast with argumentation,which is the use of premises to logically support a conclusion.

    I have nothing against rhetoric if “rhetoric” is taken as including critical thinking or responsible, ethical discourse.

  13. Some people can be on ‘automatic pilot’ when it comes to language. They use the same language no matter what the environment or context is. Anyone in the public domain has to be consciously aware not to do this.

    Also travelling from one English speaking culture to another; if a person stays for a while they may assimilate expressions that are strange in a different culture. Such expressions are like neon signs, capital letters, or exclamation marks when expressed elsewhere.

    A written speech is likely to be devoid of all such expressions; spontaneous remarks are likely to trip someone up, especially if the person is in the public domain.

    Being consciously aware of speech is a good habit to cultivate. Inner city students would do well to attempt to speak well, if they want to make it into the mainstream.

  14. Earlier, I’d briefly suggested that some word choice is about appearing to be less-bound by rules. To expand upon that, I wonder how much motivation there is to identify with a rebellious culture, where defiance and posturing tends toward hostile words as a weapon of that rebellion.

    Anne’s point about ‘automatic pilot’ seems particularly relevant here, especially when taking on a role can mean acting more from intuition than from reason. As seen in various psychological experiments, people often skip over critical ethical choices when they take on a particular role (e.g. prison guard), typically leading to unexpected and undesirable results. Similar considerations would seem to apply to the choice of words where words are wielded like weapons–where words can lead to escalation of conflict. I wonder just how much rules of conflict (jus in bello) might be applied here.

  15. I find Tesserid’s idea of it being motivated by breaking the rules to be in a large sense true for me – but only because I don’t understand the point of the rule. It literally seems like a silly rule, so for me I wouldn’t think it rebelliousness for rebelliousness’s sake. I just can’t figure that there can be such things as “hostile” or “vulgar” or “bad” words. Only context. As Mike pointed out earlier, in regards to the casual speak of his students, it seems obvious that the words that have these ideas placed on them change over time and are completely arbitrary.

    Doesn’t it seem, that if there be a rule, it be that things like professionalism and politeness and other ideas pertaining to a persons character be judged by that person’s intent, the point actually being communicated, and all the other surrounding contextual clues? I recognize that it’s hard to understand the full context of a given statement, especially around those we don’t know well. But a person comfortable, or not offended by certain words, in and of themselves, shouldn’t be frowned upon for not always associating words necessarily with negativity.

    I know that it just won’t happen, but I can easily imagine a world where kids just aren’t taught that any words are bad. You could still exclaim, and express any idea necessary (as I pointed out in my earlier post, people who cuss like sailors still would not have a hard time convincing you of a more serious context). Maybe I’m too much of a hippie, but a lot of these kinds of social rules just seem like a way for some people to separate themselves from someone judged, superficially, to be some sort of riffraff.

    Mike, I enjoy your blogs and the TPM, and I can’t imagine I would be turned off of your class because you taught in a tie-dyed shirt and flip flops. But I understand you’re under more constraint than what some student you don’t even have thinks about such things.

  16. I agree with Michael F. except to the messy details of separating the foul words from their intent, which will only lead to a rather silly argument in the present context.

    I find that plain-speaking often runs into conflict with rules of decorum without ever having to descend to vulgarities. I also find that the high-minded will often try to interpret offense where none is intended as a defense mechanism for their arguments. This can be quite amusing when both parties see the other as the barbarian at the gate.

  17. Michael F.

    You do raise a good point about the nature of “bad” language: the “badness” of such words does seem to be created rather than anything inherent to the words. After all, the meaning of terms and their emotional connotations are very fluid. Take for example “sick.” When I hear “that is sick”, I think it is saying something negative.” But, the slang use of “sick” for many people today is such that “sick” is good. Presumably, the same would also apply to words like “f@ck.”

    However, I do think there is utility in having words that are “extreme” and even considered impolite or obscene. There are, I think, situations that call for such language and it is useful to have those tools on hand. Then again, perhaps we would be better off without these sorts of terms (or at least having them be impolite or obscene).

  18. Sometimes, I “say every tool has its correct use and its incorrect use”, but that’s a bit of an oversimplification. It’s more along the lines of “for a particular application, a particular tool will have some degree of utility, ranging from almost perfect all the way down to directly opposing the desired objective.”

    In that words are tools, there is that range of meaning that society accepts and attributes power, to the extent that some words can be used to negatively influence societies behavior. But, over time, society changes what meanings it accepts for words; and with this, the need to be wary of the power associated with particular words also changes.

    Since people seek out whatever tools they can find to fit their needs, attempting to ban certain words only inspires the search for useful alternatives–even to the point of inventing surreptitious euphemisms (as suggested in the previous couple of comments in this thread).

    Aside from showing the folly of censoring particular words (and possibly other forms of expression),
    you cannot ask society to suddenly treat a word as if it has another meaning. Nor, can we expect people to not be sensitive to a word (or concept). Where words can affect a person’s social status and ultimately their livelihood or safety, it is reasonable to feel threatened by some forms of verbal attack.

    So, the smooth functioning of society depends upon the meaning that society attributes to words–not what a censoring body would impose.

    This is why I focus on the intent, particularly with regards to aggression or destructive/oppressive/tyrannical manipulation of society.

    So, as words are too much a part of everyday social activities to be banned outright–like a weapon that could only be used for harm, we can still address the destructive use of words and/or the damage they cause.

    Still, this doesn’t make things simple, and there will always be those that attempt to solve problems through simplistic controls rather than by way of a deeper understanding.

  19. Censorship of words does seem to be an attempt to force people to appear “polite.” However, it does take away from their authenticity. After all, you do not hear what the person really said.

    The bleeping of words seems to mostly comment on our society rather than serve a useful protective function.

  20. Mike L.,

    Yes, regulating behavior doesn’t make people nicer; it tends to create hypocrisy and a culture of hidden misbehavior (which brings to mind the Cole Port song “Let’s Misbehave”, published during prohibition).

  21. TesserId,

    True-regulation generally impact behavior rather than the internal mental states. Of course, if Aristotle is right, if this is done long enough then it will become habit.

  22. I believe this post might be looking at the wrong types of rhetoric, or at least understanding rhetoric through the connotations it has gained in contemporary times. The initial purpose of rhetoric outline by ancient philosophers like Aristotle and Cicero was not to decieve the listener; rhetoric was an art form in and of itself. Getting back to this roots of rhetoric will break down the walls of this negative connotations wile improving the way we use rhetorical skills today. I elaborate far more on a blog post at matthursh.wordpress.com, and I encourge many of you who are interested to read on there.

  23. Matt,

    True, the definition of rhetoric could be broadened (or returned) to include what you take to be the classic aspects. My intent was to focus on a limited form of rhetoric, but it is good that you pointed out that perhaps I was being a bit too narrow.

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