Hyperbole is pandemic; Truth is virtually extinct.

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.

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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.

When it Counts

While out walking our dogs a week ago, my husband and I stopped to chat with a neighbor. We asked him casually how he was doing and he quietly said that his daughter was dying.

She was in hospital with liver failure, and he was in negotiations with the insurance company and hospital trying to arrange a liver transplant. His daughter had some issues that made it more complicated and was turned down for the operation by local hospitals. Dan (not his real name) found a hospital in another state that expressed willingness to perform the surgery and he was deep in negotiations over prices, transport, temporary living arrangements and a million other details. To further complicate matters, his insurance company refused to authorize the surgery or any related expenses arising out of it, citing non-coverage for out-of-state care. Dan was desperate to save her, as any parent would be, and was willing to shoulder any burden, no matter how ruinous, to help her.

Over the next couple days, I couldn’t stop thinking about it and I decided to look and see if there was a Rally or Go Fund Me page to help with expenses. And there was. He was seeking $500,000 to defray the cost of an out-of-state, uninsured liver transplant for his adult daughter. He had written a short, no frills explanation of what the money was for and I specifically remember thinking that he should tell more of a story; appeal more emotionally, if he hoped to raise that kind of money in a short time. Of course, I also thought his chances of raising a half-million dollars in a few days was pretty damn slim. But you know what? He did it.

At the last minute, the hospital that had agreed to do the surgery raised its price by a third (!) and then failed to call him back for three days. After everything, he was utterly, heart-breakingly thwarted by the hospital’s financial administrator not returning his calls until Thursday – his daughter passed away Wednesday night.

I could comment on an insurance company that denies out-of-state coverage, even though in-state service wasn’t an option; a hospital that agrees to a price and then in a very “oh, by the way” manner, raises their service price by over a hundred-thousand dollars and then their financial office doesn’t call a desperate father back for three days; or the sheer heartbreak of a parent losing a child no matter how it happens. All worthy essay topics. But what I’d like to comment on is this:

What does it say about a person, when they put up a plea on a Funding Site for a huge amount of money, that their funding needs are met within 48 hours? His written plea wasn’t particularly emotive, it didn’t give a ton of detail; it didn’t have pictures. And yet…..

Dan is the kind of guy who, if he notices someone suspicious near your house, he will trouble himself to check it out. He’s lived in this neighborhood for over 30 years, knows everyone, and clearly subscribes to an old-fashioned sense of neighborliness. (This neighborhood is a wonderful throw-back to a time when neighbors socialized and watched out for each other, but that’s a topic for another post.) He isn’t nosy, he’s always cheerful, he’s well-regarded. He’s known for being helpful and generous. He once gave a substantial amount to a renter in this neighborhood because they showed up at his house pleading inability to pay their rent. I’ve never heard him speak ill of anyone. He’s the kind of dependable guy you want around.

None of this will matter to him in this moment. He’s deep in grief; I’ve seen him go by with his dog on a normal walk; an uncharacteristic shadow on his face. I hope he is buoyed even a tiny bit, by the love that percolated up to support him. It was too late, but it wasn’t useless. He’s built a life-time of good relations and clearly, character outs itself. People – a lot of them –  rallied sacrificially to help. We live in a throw-away world nowadays. People don’t know their neighbors, don’t stay in an area or a city long-term, don’t have money to put towards anything but bills and essentials. And yet….

“Karma” isn’t always a bitch after all.

Lying in Translation: Notes Towards a Truthful Memoir

I think the issue of remaining in your truth in memoirs applies to more than just language. Every family has a secret language; a code of what is understood and said / hidden. The author lives in that context intrinsically but there is fear in conveying to a reader the sublime and the gross, knowing that you cannot affect how they internalize your portrait. This is exactly why certain stories I’d like to tell remain  still unfinished. Writers must overcome their fear, and I’m still battling it.

Bending Genre

In the grocery stores, dime stores, department stores of the New Orleans East neighborhood where I grew up, my grandmother stole and I lied.  It became part of the rhythm of our days:  Lala brought us into the English-speaking world, where the Americans talked like chirping, or was it squawking birds—I can’t pin down the analogous word, but I knew she didn’t like the sound of it, ese maldito ingles—and she spoke only Spanish, so I served as translator.

Very quickly I learned I must lie. Because at TG&Y off Michoud Boulevard, Lala deigned to purchase household items like toilet paper or detergent, but stole whatever tchotchke it was I wanted. In the check-out line the cashier might ask how we were doing, to which Lala would reply in Spanish, “I’m fantastic, you dummy, because I’m stealing from you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.” All those…

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