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The Unmitigated Disaster of Hyperbole

Ok, so I had a little fun with the title of this piece, but the article below is serious.

“Genocide,” “Massacre,” “Fascist,” “Nazi,” “War Monger,” “Racist,” “Criminal,” “Murderer.” These are all words we hear or read daily on the news, or in social media.  They come from the political right and the political left, from mainstream sources and from highly partisan media outlets, from establishment candidates and from third parties. Hillary Clinton is described as a war monger, a bigot, a criminal and a murderer. Donald Trump is called a Fascist, a Nazi and a racist. When security guards pepper-sprayed Native American protesters in North Dakota it was called a “massacre” and the bulldozing of sacred lands (which were not known to contain burial sites until days before) was called “genocide.” Even reading this, those who use such terms will jump to defend themselves as being accurate and those who are too “cowardly” or “ill-informed” to agree, as hopelessly blinkered by mainstream media bias.

The truth is that this is an era of hyperbole and of argument by exaggeration and character assassination. Name-calling and labeling has been substituted for substantive argument. In a time when everyone has access to social media and every opinion can be published in some form somewhere for all the world to see, everyone needs to raise some kind of flag in order to gain the public’s attention.

What’s the harm?

For one thing, using such terms when they’re not merited serves to level the field so that all instances of uninformed or prejudiced views about issues related to race, for instance are called “racist,” or all actions aimed at defending our country militarily are referred to as “war mongering.” There have been many instances of genocide in our modern world, including the Jewish Holocaust, the Turkish starvation of Armenians, the Rwanda attempt by the Hutu to wipe out the Tutsi minority in their country, etc. The European and American treatment of Native Americans, which brought disease, enslavement, massacres of men, women and children, and involuntary relocation to reservations, with subsequent continued attempts to destroy what was left of Native American traditions and culture can legitimately be called genocide and it happened throughout the Americas. But bulldozing a sacred burial site to lay a pipeline is not genocide and calling it such diminishes the importance of the true genocidal acts that preceded it, as well as obscures the issues involved in this actual event. Similarly, the actions by protesters of police brutality toward black citizens have not led to a climate of “lawlessness” that is the equivalent of, nor the source of, policemen being murdered.

We are a nation that is fractured in terms of any consensus on what our real problems are or how to solve them. People talk at each other not with each other. Recent congressional attempts to pass legislation related to gun control and to efforts to control the spread of the Zika virus failed because neither political party, both of which had offered bills to address these issues would vote for its opponent’s bills or agree to compromise. Both sides blamed the other and there was plenty of name-calling to go around. One of the consequences of both politicians and the public exaggerating the faults of their political enemies and elevating every event to the level of it being a symptom of some kind of incurable evil, is to believe that there is no room for cooperative working out of solutions to the problems that face us. How can environmentalist enlist the cooperation of industries that they accuse of "raping the land in the name of corporate greed?" How can corporations who pollute the environment listen to the arguments of “soft-minded tree-hugging liberals who are determined to send America down the rabbit hole of economic socialism?” In our presidential election, the evils of both candidates have convinced Americans that they have to be for “Never Trump” or “Never Hillary,” because the disaster of one or the other candidate becoming president is a fate from which our country will never recover. We will either be led into World War III or into a repressive 1984-like Big Brother era of suppression of the rights  of all but White Christian males. The third party candidates argue that both of the establishment nominees are racist, warmongering tools of corporate America, exactly equal in terms of the degree of evil they will enforce upon the country once one of them is elected.

Somehow intellectual honesty has become equated with doctrinaire acceptance of hyperbolic claims about the evils of one or another group—Muslims, Israelis, Wall Street, Corporations, Police, Black Lives Matter protesters, the DNC, the RNC, mainstream media—there is enough evil to  adorn all sides of the political spectrum. There seems to be going on a process of Groupthink, in which people talk only to those with whom they agree, and the more extreme voices within a group drag the median opinion further and further toward acceptance of views that could not be sustained by even-handed discussion from all sides. Information or opinions that disagree with the group consensus are ignored, denied, or distorted, and within-group discussion of such opinions that are at odds with those accepted by the group are punished by ridicule, or ejection from the group (look what happened to Bernie Sanders when he decided to support Hillary Clinton, to John McCain when he spoke out against Trump’s immigration policies).

Democracy only works when the mechanisms that lead to adoption of the policies favored by the citizens work. We already know that big money and corporate America have an enormous influence on not only U.S. elections, but also what bills are passed by congress and what policies are implemented by the government. (this is not hyperbole. Read the Gillens and Page 2014 study here: https://scholar.princeton.edu/sites/default/files/mgilens/files/gilens_and_page_2014_-testing_theories_of_american_politics.doc.pdf) 

But even in the absence of a clear-cut corporate agenda, our democratic institutions in Washington are unable to function because of the demonizing of each other and each other’s positions. The Republican congress vowed to not pass President Obama’s agenda, even when they might agree with some parts of it, and by and large, they succeeded. What will happen when one or the other of the two most demonized presidential candidates in recent history is elected? Not only congress, but one half of the electorate will oppose everything the new president wants to do just because of the person who holds the office.

If we want our society to work, we need to cut back on the hyperbolic rhetoric, examine our own assumptions and positions as much as we examine those of others, and face the fact that only through cooperation and compromise will we move ahead as a nation.


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  • Response
    The Unmitigated Disaster of Hyperbole authentically wonder article writer of this article really wonderful man when he wrote thic article he think care fully. In this article writer tells about many wrong conditions and in them the most common is “Racist” who are bone of contention in all wrong conditions. But ...

Reader Comments (1)

It's fitting you referenced 1984 since Orwell saw a clear connection between the state of a government and the kind of language spoken by its politicians. The campaign process gets so chaotic it's easy for the dialogue to veer away into hyperbole and hostile arguing. The effect of words starts fading and numbness sets in, when there's too much talk and not much being said. The positive result is that people snap out of it and start realizing the need for honesty and clarity in our political discussions. Hopefully we'll see more of that in the debates.

September 7, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterRobert L.

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