Hyperbole, Again

English: Protesters at the Taxpayer March on W...

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Hyperbole is a rhetorical device in which a person uses an exaggeration or overstatement in order to create a negative or positive feeling. Hyperbole is often combined with a rhetorical analogy. For example, a person might say that someone told “the biggest lie in human history” in order to create a negative impression. It should be noted that not all vivid or extreme language is hyperbole-if the extreme language matches the reality, then it is not hyperbole. So, if the lie was actually the biggest lie in human history, then it would not be hyperbole to make that claim.

People often make use of hyperbole when making rhetorical analogies/comparisons. A rhetorical analogy involves comparing two (or more) things in order to create a negative or positive impression.  For example, a person might be said to be as timid as a mouse or as smart as Einstein. By adding in hyperbole, the comparison can be made more vivid (or possibly ridiculous). For example, a professor who assigns a homework assignment that is due the day before spring break might be compared to Hitler. Speaking of Hitler, hyperbole and rhetorical analogies are stock items in political discourse.

Some Republicans have decided that Obamacare is going to be their main battleground. As such, it is hardly surprising that they have been breaking out the hyperbole in attacking it. Dr. Ben Carson launched an attack by seeming to compare Obamacare to slavery, but the response to this led him to “clarify” his remarks to mean that he thinks Obamacare is not like slavery, but merely the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery. This would, of course, make it worse than all the wars, the Great Depression, 9/11 and so on.

While he did not make a slavery comparison, Ted Cruz made a Nazi comparison during his filibuster. As Carson did, Cruz and his supporters did their best to “clarify” the remark.

Since slavery and Nazis had been taken, Rick Santorum decided to use the death of Mandela as an opportunity to compare Obamacare to Apartheid.

When not going after Obamacare, Obama himself is a prime target for hyperbole. John McCain, who called out Cruz on his Nazi comparison, could not resist making use of some Nazi hyperbole in his own comparison. When Obama shook Raul Castro’s hand, McCain could not resist comparing Obama to Chamberlain and Castro to Hitler.

Democrats and Independents are not complete strangers to hyperbole, but they do not seem to wield it quite as often (or as awkwardly) as Republicans. There have been exceptions, of course-the sweet allure of a Nazi comparison is bipartisan.  However, my main concern here is not to fill out political scorecards regarding hyperbole. Rather, it is to discuss why such uses of negative hyperbole are problematic.

One point of note is that while hyperbole can be effective at making people feel a certain way (such as angry), its use often suggests that the user has little in the way of substance. After all, if something is truly bad, then there would seem to be no legitimate need to make exaggerated comparisons. In the case of Obamacare, if it is truly awful, then it should suffice to describe its awfulness rather than make comparisons to Nazis, slavery and Apartheid. Of course, it would also be fair to show how it is like these things. Fortunately for America, it is obviously not like them.

One point of moral concern is the fact that making such unreasonable comparisons is an insult to the people who suffered from or fought against such evils. After all, such comparisons transform such horrors as slavery and Apartheid into mere rhetorical chips in the latest political game. To use an analogy, it is somewhat like a person who has played Call of Duty comparing himself to combat veterans of actual wars. Out of respect for those who suffered from and fought against these horrors, they should not be used so lightly and for such base political gameplay.

From the standpoint of critical thinking, such hyperbole should be avoided because it has no logical weight and serves to confuse matters by playing on the emotions. While that is the intent of hyperbole, this is an ill intent. While rhetoric does have its legitimate place (mainly in making speeches less boring) such absurd overstatements impede rather than advance rational discussion and problem solving.

 

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  1. Doris Wrench Eisler

    In order to avoid ridiculous hyperbole, it shouldn’t be said that McCain’s comparing Raul Castro with Hitler and Obama with Chamberlain is the most ridiculous remark ever made by a politician but it can be said to be be among the most ridiculous. A remark of this type tends to cheapen all political comment as it is obviously meant to influence the weak-minded or totally ignorant. There are events and people in this world at this time that perhaps can be compared with apartheid, slavery and Hitler but Obama care and Castro aren’t in the running. But even in these cases it is usually better to avoid such exploitative and sensational comparisons which simplify very complex and in some respects unique, but perhaps equally evil, situations or events. It is okay to use these terms when the obvious intent is humour or hyperbole for its own sake. Was McCain joking, or does he now claim to have been?

  2. In good order, this is a very very useful area that philosophy still plays in everyday day lives. Teaching people how to make comparisons. 1=1 is the same thing as 1=e^0? They are not the same. A rudimentary knowledge of mathematics will not make these statements identical. Likewise, C is an element. O is an element. They are both elements, therefore they are both like one another. The number of differences could not be listed in my lifetime. The number of similarities could also not be listed in my lifetime. Not to mention, that I do not have the expertise to make the comparison between such elements (at least not all of them).

    WWII = WWII. WWII does not equal anything else. Comparisons to such an event are silly and nebulous. The number of differences between WWI and WWII could not be listed in my lifetime. The number of similarities could also not be listed in my lifetime. Not to mention, again, that I do not possess the expertise to make comparisons between such events. And I would contend that computers only, with deep memory and sophisticated algorithms could provide nearly unabridged lists.

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