A Philosopher's Blog

Rhetorical Overkill

Posted in Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on March 28, 2010
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As part of my critical thinking class, I teach a section on rhetoric. While my main concern is with teaching students how to defend against it, I also discuss how to use it. One of the points I make is that one risk with certain forms of rhetoric is what I call rhetorical overkill. This is  commonly done with hyperbole which is, by definition, an extravagant overstatement.

One obvious risk with hyperbole is that if it is too over the top, then it can be ineffective or even counterproductive. If a person is trying to use positive hyperbole, then going too far can create the impression that the person is claiming the absurd or even mocking the subject in question. For example, think of the over the top infomercials where the product is claimed to do  everything but cure cancer.  If the person is trying to use negative hyperbole, then going too far can undercut the attack by making it seem ridiculous. For example, calling a person a Nazi because he favors laws requiring people to use seat belts would seem rather absurd.

Another risk is that hyperbole can create an effect somewhat like crying wolf. In that tale, the boy cried “wolf” so often that no one believed him when the wolf actually came. In the case of rhetorical overkill, the problem is that it can create what might be dubbed “hyperbolic fatigue.” If matters are routinely blown out of proportion, this will tend to numb people to such terms. On a related note, if politicians and pundits routinely cry “Hitler” or “apocalypse” over lesser matters what words will they have left when the situation truly warrants such terms?

In some ways, this  is like swearing. While I am not a prude, I prefer to keep my swear words in reserve for situations that actually merit them. I’ve noticed that many people tend to use swear words in everyday conversations and I found this a bit confusing at first. After all, I have “hierarchy of escalation” when it comes to words, and swear words are at the top.  But, for many folks today, swear words are just part of everyday conversation (even in the classroom). So, when someone swears at me now, I pause to see if they are just talking normally or if they are actually trying to start trouble.

While I rarely swear, I do resent the fact that swear words have become so diluted and hence less useful to make a point quickly and directly. The same applies to extreme language-if we do not reserve it for extreme circumstances, then we diminish our language by robbing extreme words of their corresponding significance.

So, what the f@ck do you think?

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9 Responses

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  1. magus71 said, on March 28, 2010 at 8:34 am

    For a lesson on rhetorical hyperbole, check out any book written by a liberal on GW Bush.

  2. T. J. Babson said, on March 28, 2010 at 8:50 am

    A good example is how often the “racist” charge has been hurled recently. It has lost its impact.

    Example: Rev. Jeremiah Wright: Health Care Law Opposition Based on Hatred for ‘People of Color’

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on March 28, 2010 at 8:43 pm

      The charge of racism has been overplayed a bit and some folks are rather quick in throwing out that accusation. But, it still seems to have some teeth left in it.

      • magus71 said, on March 28, 2010 at 11:58 pm

        Throwing it out so often incites more racism.

        • P.E.N.Name said, on March 29, 2010 at 8:17 am

          Explain. Would more frequently making the charge “rapist” incite more rape? Should it? Does making the charge “baby-killer” cause “baby-killers” to kill more babies. Does using the epithet “faggot” inspire more ‘faggotry’?

          • magus71 said, on March 29, 2010 at 12:23 pm

            People get resentful when the race card is played constantly. It causes even more resentment between the races.

            Here’s some lyrics from the Creed song, “One”:

            “Affirmative may be justified
            Take from one give to another
            The goal is to be unified
            Take my hand be my brother
            The payment silenced the masses”

            and..

            “Society blind by color
            Why hold down one to raise another
            Discrimination now on both sides
            Seeds of hate blossom further
            The world is heading for mutiny
            When all we want is unity
            We may rise and fall, but in the end
            We meet our fate together

            Sanctified by oppression
            Unity took a backseat
            Sliding further into regression”

            • P.E.N.Name said, on March 29, 2010 at 6:07 pm

              There’s an obvious problem with perception here. If one party perceives racism where racism actually resides and reacts against it and the opposing party fails (perhaps intentionally?) to see the racism buried beneath its code words and slogan, where does that leave us?

              If one side feels (justly or unjustly) it has paid its debt to the other side and the other side feels (justly or unjustly) that the debt has yet to be fully paid, where does that leave us?

              Who will be the arbiter? He who claims “racism”? He who claims “race-baiting”? Do you have anyone else in mind?

              From a purely historical and moral perspective, which side wields the most convincing claims? The side that was repressed and enslaved? Or the side that repressed and enslaved?

              Again, who should be the arbiter?

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on March 31, 2010 at 3:06 pm

              Fortunately, there are objective ways to sort out claims of racism. These are not perfect methods, but a little critical thought goes a long way. While laying out the methodology would require considerable work, there are two main areas of concern. The first is the actor. After all, what counts as racism depends on intent and motivation to a significant degree. For example, whether the use of a term is racist or not depends a great deal on these factors. The second is the act itself. Some actions might be inherently racist-that is, there is almost no way that they could not be racist in character.

  3. T. J. Babson said, on March 29, 2010 at 2:51 pm

    As an example of rhetorical overkill, I show you what U.S. healthcare will be like in 5 yeras:


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