Damon Linker, Senior correspondent at TheWeek.com penned an opinion piece this week, entitled, “America’s Hyperbole Habit is the Worst Thing Ever” [Clever sarcastic title, sir!]. The article prompted me to think about the role our repeated use of superlatives—”the best,” “the worst,” “the only,” “the last,” “the last best…” have helped drive our already polarized citizenry deeper into our respective encampments.

Hyperbole is used all the time. We learn about it when we’re very young. It is usually quite harmless. When my grandson was younger, he would sometimes jump up and down and shriek, “this is the best day ever!” I’d beam with delight and take pride in being part of that moment—knowing full well that the day before was pretty good, too—and the day after might be better still. If a friend reported, “I have the worst cold” you’d be sympathetic, but reasonably sure that her health was not in crisis. And if a student exclaimed, “my backpack weighs a million pounds,” chances are it was heavy but not that heavy!

Ad agencies and politicians have been using this technique for generations to attract customers or solidify their base of support. But what has made this time so different is the tendency to weaponize hyperbole to drive bright dividing lines between “right and wrong,” “good and evil,” “winners and losers.” It was, of course, a central technique used by the former president both in business and during his time at the White House.

Seemingly untethered to any ethical standard, exaggeration and hyperbole became fuel for wedge issues that drive us apart instead of bringing us together to solve the pressing issues that have faced our nation for generations. And, while the former guy perfected the art of hyperbolic weaponization, mixing it with humiliation, insult and bullying, it is not a tactic used exclusively by one party or perspective. Headlines pushed by the left—we are in an existential crisis; our very democracy is at stake—and the right—the radical left has forever destroyed the fabric of what it means to be American—are exemplary of this trend.    

As Linker asks and answers: “Is this the worst thing ever? Not at all. But it’s not especially good for the country’s civic health (or the psychological wellbeing of individual Americans) to have alarm bells blaring at full volume all the time from every conceivable direction. Yet that’s increasingly the way politics plays out in our time, at once exhausting, numbing, and radicalizing us…The most extreme, unmodulated, outrageous formulation of an opinion tends to stand out, inspire likes, and go viral far more than efforts at nuance and fair-minded analysis. Hyperbole is the coin of the realm on Twitter, serving to enhance each individual’s effort to inspire adulation and applause.”  

In another article, Linker amplifies this thought: “Twitter puts every tweeter on a massive stage, with the nastiest put-downs, insults, and provocations often receiving the most applause. That creates a powerful incentive to go radical, speak in extremes, and exaggerate, which then provokes a reaction, and then a reaction to the reaction, and so on through endless iterations of hyperbolic reactivity…a significant portion of the electorate resides inside a mental universe of nonstop panic and alarm.”

Three things make this phenomenon different today than in the past: Polarization—the tribalism we currently experience leaves us susceptible to messages that reinforce our positions irrespective of facts or logic. Coupled with a precipitous withdrawal of civility in our public dialogue, our interactions often rest on inflammatory, hair-trigger invectives—challenging us to respond with ever-escalating rhetoric in order to prove our worthiness to our tribe.

Democratization—increased access to media platforms and the reduction in costs of communication technology has made each of us a media producer. While in general this is a positive development, social media removes the filters formerly placed on public messaging, and gives ordinary individuals access to huge platforms. Messages are amplified in unprecedented ways. My dad would often say, “the squeaking wheel gets the grease” and so it is on social media—the more hyperbolic the message, the more attention it generates.

Isolation—We have only begun to grapple with the sociopsychological impact that isolation—both actual and imagined—has had on us as individuals and as a society. Some have suffered devastating personal disruption and loss because of Covid. But I would argue that we have all suffered because of the underlying dread that lurks in our hearts and minds because of the many ways we have become isolated from one another during these past two years.

So, we want to shout—long and loud—in an effort to reclaim our humanity. And, in our frustrated rants, we are prone to absolutes—to hyperbole—which only escalate feelings of uncertainty, doubt and fear. Words matter. Attend to what you say…and how you say it. 

6 thoughts on “Hyperbole is the Worst

  1. Dear Bob: Once again you have hit the nail on the head. Hyperbole has not been in my usage recently, but it certainly does explain how disagreements can be so divisive, especially in some families. Thanks so very much for bringing up this important point!

  2. “Words matter. Attend to what you say…and how you say it.”

    Dear Educator “Rev. Chase”,

    In the past, I always disagreed with you on the way you used your ways and my comments exhibited such frustration that we all share in these difficult times. Long time ago, a Muslim friend of mine shared with translation of a verse from the Qura’an Holy Book, which reminded me of what the bible already officiated to mankind and reinforced my belief in the POWER of Words. The Qura’an verse translation said “WE, as the Peoples are..”

    Whether right or wrong as you mentioned Rev. Chase, I could not agree more, our words do matter in every shape and way and at every level and stage of life.

    Thank you,


  3. Can the center hold? Bob valiantly holds up this question, trying to ascribe inability to solve our ills onto opinions veering into dogma via hyperbole driven by fears.
    I disagree and am very fearful for the future of our democracy.
    Two profound pieces this week:
    First, Thomas Edsal in the NYT yesterday shares a metastudy on research into causes and courses of political polarization in various countries. Our outlook is dim, he concludes with very little mediating actions or forces.

    Second, Kurt Andersen in The Atlantic spells out how we are engaging in human sacrifice. Facts, not hyperbole are provided in his analysis. A cult leader and profit-seeking media and social media players push a fifth of our people to resist vaccinations and mask wearing. We are 4% of the world but have 17% the covid deaths. Red states’ vax rates are low leading to higher infection, hospitalization and death rates. He cites studies that the redder the county, the fewer the vaccinated whilst the bluer the higher (with fewer infections and deaths). He connects the party dedicated to extreme income inequality to anthropological studies that human sacrifice functions to keep an elite in power. Further, he suggests total dedication to gun rights also leads to tens of thousands of deaths. Since we gained access to vaccinations, human sacrifice is even clearer since there options to protect health. Our lack of a national government to protect public health is as tragic as local politicians and courts fighting against masks and vaccinations. If there is hyperbole, it is the runaway libertarianism pushing us over the edge. It is evil and betrays the American ideals, let alone those of religious teachings.

  4. Bob, the following key words from your writing tell nearly the whole, demoralizing story. Can we together start dealing with the issues these words lift up?
    Hyperbole, polarization, encampment, exaggeration, weaponizing, lack of nuance, tribalism, frustrated rants, prone to absolutes.
    Thanks for focusing the issue for us,

  5. At a very early age we are indoctrinated to see, interpret and react to the world in ways which subconsciously promote polarization — yes/no, right/wrong, good/evil, black/white, us/them, etc..

    The teams we inevitably subscribe to, or seek to build, perpetuate and reinforce such binary thinking. We are all but prisoners to the ayes or nays in our lives. They govern us.

    The families we belong to, the schools we attend, the friends we keep, the neighborhoods we reside in, the clubs we join, the businesses we frequent, the products we buy, and so on and so on; each is established as an encampment, encircled by the barbed wire of our perceptions.

    In small, unrelenting and incendiary ways, I was taught early on, nay — encouraged, to covertly embrace racist, sexist, ageist, etc., interpretations of ‘our’ worldview. It’s not that my caretakers did not know better; rather is it that they already belonged to, often without questioning why, high-fiving teams of like-thinkers.

    It’s those unasked question seeping within untroubled minds that continue to give me pause. And sleepless nights.

    For many, this writer included, it takes nothing shorter than a lifetime to unravel the deeply ingrained polarization that resides within.

  6. I really enjoyed and agreed with your insightful article on hyperbole. Clever title and an ending that really resonated.

    Part of the pandemic exhaustion and stress, I agree, is due to overstating every emotion, idea, product etc., etc., etc. This essentially lazy habit has been going on a very long time, but it grates even more now.

    It’s so tiring trying to navigate through the attention grabbing attempts to make everything so much bigger than it is. Then comes the burden of discerning how many notches to throttle down in order to arrive at a realistic level for meaningful conversation. Oy vey!

    There is much to be said for reading more and increasing one’s vocabulary at the very least. And, (do I hear myself saying this?!), minimizing our addiction to TV shows, ads, news, sound bites.

    Thanks, Bob, for clarifying this issue.


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