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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