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.