Whenever there’s a big news story that interests me, I like to read a variety of stories about it before I form an opinion. I specifically choose articles from differing perspectives, often reading the same topic on Huffington, Fox, Drudge, CNN, BBC and others. I find the differing (often diametrically opposed) political slants on the story informative and I’m a firm believer that one should expose themselves to all sorts of opinions, giving consideration to each and then forming one’s own opinion. As a lover of words I’m often amused to observe the power carefully crafted messages have on casual readers. But I’m also frequently frightened by it.
The other day I read a series of articles, from different venues, about the Baltimore protests. I watched a news interview of a young black woman at the protests who claims she witnessed a police officer deliberately shoot a retreating man (a protester presumably) in the back. She was vehement about what she saw. It was shortly thereafter proven that the man wasn’t shot, or even shot at. Did she fall victim to the commonly-known phenomenon of the “unreliable witness?” Or is she a product of rampant overstatement and grandstanding so pervasive nowadays? Is she merely engaging in what has become a common practice; to engage in hyperbolism for effect and purpose.Or was she just lying?
Glance at the news on any given day and you will see a festival of utterly biased hyperbole on virtually every topic. The hotter the topic, the more outrageous the descriptive. For instance; apparently there is a “holocaust” against black people in America right now. Yes, that actual word was used. A HOLOCAUST. The lesbians who just won over $100K for a baker’s refusal to make a cake for them described their experience as “mental rape” and cited 88 symptoms arising from their distress, such as: “acute loss of confidence,” “doubt,” “excessive sleep,” “felt dirty and shameful,” ” “impaired digestion,” “loss of appetite,” “migraine headaches,” “pale and sick at home after work,” “resumption of smoking habit,” “shock” “stunned,” “surprise,” “uncertainty,” “weight gain” and “worry.” We’re talking about a cake. I’ve seen restaurant reviews that use words like “outrageous”, “a trip to Hell”, “worst experience I’ve ever had”...your food was cold and it’s the worst experience of your life? Holy Smokes.
Wikipedia Dictionary defines Hyperbole as follows:
Hyperbole: use of exaggeration as a rhetorical device or figure of speech. It is used to create emphasis on a situation. It may be used to evoke strong feelings or to create a strong impression, but is not meant to be taken literally.
See that last bit? Hyperbole is not meant to be taken literally. When did people stop understanding that? When did this become the norm? Why does every narrative have to rise to the level of life-or-death? Why are they gathering viral steam and incensing millions of people, a significant portion of whom clearly have little critical thinking ability or self-control? (I think I just answered my own question.) What does that do to real life-or-death stories? How does the Holocaust survivor feel having his experience aligned with police brutality against blacks, given that the statistics of each are not even remotely comparable? I wonder how the actual rape victim feels about likening her experience to lacking cake? It’s appalling – and I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that – that what is supposed to be a literary device used to make a point has become standard-speak for the media, politicians and protest organizers. It both diminishes actual victims and elevates ridiculousness to common practice. I mean, I get it; it’s used because it’s effective. We live in a sound-byte world that values a lie if it is crafted to fit your preferred beliefs; truth be damned. But people are committing violence based on this stuff. It’s one thing to engage in propaganda, but propaganda by definition is historically a emphasis-message tool:
Propaganda: a form of communication aimed towards influencing the attitude of a population toward some cause or position. Propaganda is information that is not impartial and used primarily to influence an audience and further an agenda or using loaded messages to produce an emotional rather than a rational response to the information presented. Propaganda in its original sense was neutral and referred to uses that were generally positive, such as public health recommendations, signs encouraging citizens to participate in a census or election, or messages encouraging persons to report crimes to law enforcement.
Everyone engages in descriptive hyperbole sometimes and mostly we know how to winnow out the exaggerations, but there has arisen an alarming habit of presenting hyperbolic information as Truth. People are acting on these deceptions, with scary and sometimes tragic outcomes. Isn’t it morally incumbent on (supposedly) educated people in media, government and social reform groups to present information in a legitimate manner and let facts prevail? Is winning at any human cost really a Win at all?
We’ve become a society of molehills pretending to be mountains. A testament to the power of effective marketing on (I would argue) weakening minds. But a damn scary outlook on society.