A Philosopher's Blog

Hyperbole, Again

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on December 16, 2013
English: Protesters at the Taxpayer March on W...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hyperbole is a rhetorical device in which a person uses an exaggeration or overstatement in order to create a negative or positive feeling. Hyperbole is often combined with a rhetorical analogy. For example, a person might say that someone told “the biggest lie in human history” in order to create a negative impression. It should be noted that not all vivid or extreme language is hyperbole-if the extreme language matches the reality, then it is not hyperbole. So, if the lie was actually the biggest lie in human history, then it would not be hyperbole to make that claim.

People often make use of hyperbole when making rhetorical analogies/comparisons. A rhetorical analogy involves comparing two (or more) things in order to create a negative or positive impression.  For example, a person might be said to be as timid as a mouse or as smart as Einstein. By adding in hyperbole, the comparison can be made more vivid (or possibly ridiculous). For example, a professor who assigns a homework assignment that is due the day before spring break might be compared to Hitler. Speaking of Hitler, hyperbole and rhetorical analogies are stock items in political discourse.

Some Republicans have decided that Obamacare is going to be their main battleground. As such, it is hardly surprising that they have been breaking out the hyperbole in attacking it. Dr. Ben Carson launched an attack by seeming to compare Obamacare to slavery, but the response to this led him to “clarify” his remarks to mean that he thinks Obamacare is not like slavery, but merely the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery. This would, of course, make it worse than all the wars, the Great Depression, 9/11 and so on.

While he did not make a slavery comparison, Ted Cruz made a Nazi comparison during his filibuster. As Carson did, Cruz and his supporters did their best to “clarify” the remark.

Since slavery and Nazis had been taken, Rick Santorum decided to use the death of Mandela as an opportunity to compare Obamacare to Apartheid.

When not going after Obamacare, Obama himself is a prime target for hyperbole. John McCain, who called out Cruz on his Nazi comparison, could not resist making use of some Nazi hyperbole in his own comparison. When Obama shook Raul Castro’s hand, McCain could not resist comparing Obama to Chamberlain and Castro to Hitler.

Democrats and Independents are not complete strangers to hyperbole, but they do not seem to wield it quite as often (or as awkwardly) as Republicans. There have been exceptions, of course-the sweet allure of a Nazi comparison is bipartisan.  However, my main concern here is not to fill out political scorecards regarding hyperbole. Rather, it is to discuss why such uses of negative hyperbole are problematic.

One point of note is that while hyperbole can be effective at making people feel a certain way (such as angry), its use often suggests that the user has little in the way of substance. After all, if something is truly bad, then there would seem to be no legitimate need to make exaggerated comparisons. In the case of Obamacare, if it is truly awful, then it should suffice to describe its awfulness rather than make comparisons to Nazis, slavery and Apartheid. Of course, it would also be fair to show how it is like these things. Fortunately for America, it is obviously not like them.

One point of moral concern is the fact that making such unreasonable comparisons is an insult to the people who suffered from or fought against such evils. After all, such comparisons transform such horrors as slavery and Apartheid into mere rhetorical chips in the latest political game. To use an analogy, it is somewhat like a person who has played Call of Duty comparing himself to combat veterans of actual wars. Out of respect for those who suffered from and fought against these horrors, they should not be used so lightly and for such base political gameplay.

From the standpoint of critical thinking, such hyperbole should be avoided because it has no logical weight and serves to confuse matters by playing on the emotions. While that is the intent of hyperbole, this is an ill intent. While rhetoric does have its legitimate place (mainly in making speeches less boring) such absurd overstatements impede rather than advance rational discussion and problem solving.

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33 Responses

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  1. WTP said, on December 16, 2013 at 9:59 am

    Democrats and Independents are not complete strangers to hyperbole, but they do not seem to wield it quite as often (or as awkwardly) as Republicans.

    From the right-wing NY Times:
    Speakers at the Democratic National Convention used an out-of-context quote on Wednesday night to give the misleading impression that Mitt Romney enjoys firing people, and some referred imprecisely to his tax proposals. The party’s platform also contained questionable assertions about President Obama’s record on civil liberties.

    I could go on and on but that might be construed as a logical fallacy to be named later.

  2. WTP said, on December 16, 2013 at 11:20 am

    Paul Ryan is like a girl doing oral and anal to keep her promise ring

  3. WTP said, on December 16, 2013 at 12:35 pm

    It has become commonplace to call the tea party faction in the House “hostage takers.” But they have now become full-blown terrorists.

    Read more: http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0711/60202.html#ixzz2nelLtidQ

  4. WTP said, on December 16, 2013 at 12:40 pm

    Nancy Pelosi on today’s vote: “What we’re trying to do is save the world from the Republican budget. We’re trying to save life on this planet as we know it today.”

  5. WTP said, on December 16, 2013 at 12:43 pm

    Something N.C. NAACP President William Barber, who is a pastor, told protestors during an in-church meeting before they headed to the legislature caught my attention:

    (Barber) told protesters Monday that Republicans are out to “crucify voting rights,” partly through a bill to require photo I.D. at the polls.


    You know Mike, you could look this stuff up yourself and spare me the indigestion on my lunch hour, which will likely lead to ulcers and near certain death.

  6. WTP said, on December 16, 2013 at 1:02 pm

    And then there’s this:
    However, this is clearly not the case. After all, the “Tea Party” governors have engaged in a full scale attack against public employees (especially educators) and seem intent on cutting wages, benefits, job security, jobs and so on. In short, there is a clear and present danger against public employees.

    Rather, doing these things will mainly damage key aspects of society and create instability.


  7. WTP said, on December 16, 2013 at 8:52 pm

    If this isn’t hyperbole, one wonders what Mike is doing from his prominent role on a college campus about this horrifying rape culture on college campuses.


  8. T. J. Babson said, on December 16, 2013 at 9:48 pm

    1. “Unhinged” Arsonists (Wasserman-Schultz)
    2. Insane People Who “Have Lost their Minds” (Harry Reid)
    3. “People with a Bomb Strapped to their Chest” (aka Terrorists)(Dan Pfeiffer)
    4. Blatant Extortionists (Jay Carney)
    5. “Legislative Arsonists” (Nancy Pelosi)

  9. T. J. Babson said, on December 16, 2013 at 9:49 pm

  10. T. J. Babson said, on December 16, 2013 at 9:52 pm

    Appearing on Hugh Hewitt‘s radio show Tuesday evening, Jake Tapper commented on the partisan differences in rhetoric during the government shutdown. According to the CNN anchor, the Republicans have seemingly taken to less over-the-top insults than their Democratic opponents.

    “Do you think the President and the Democrats’ rhetoric is qualitatively different than the Speaker and the Republicans’ rhetoric?” Hewitt asked.

    Tapper’s response: “Well, I haven’t heard the Republicans, we’re just talking about insults now, not anything else. I haven’t heard Republicans comparing the Democrats to suicide bombers or to kidnappers or to arsonists. But it’s possible that I’m not paying close enough attention.”


  11. T. J. Babson said, on December 16, 2013 at 9:54 pm

    ABC News Jonathan Karl reports: The newfound civility didn’t last long. Political rhetoric in Congress doesn’t get much nastier than the words of one House Democrat during the debate on repealing the health care law. In an extraordinary outburst on the House floor, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) invoked the Holocaust to attack Republicans on health care and compared rhetoric on the issue to the work of infamous Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels. “They say it’s a government takeover of health care, a big lie just like Goebbels,” Cohen said. “You say it enough, you repeat the lie, you repeat the lie, and eventually, people believe it. Like blood libel. That’s the same kind of thing. And Congressman Cohen didn’t stop there. “The Germans said enough about the Jews and people believed it–believed it and you have the Holocaust. We heard on this floor, government takeover of health care. Politifact said the biggest lie of 2010 was a government takeover of health care because there is no government takeover,” Cohen said.


  12. T. J. Babson said, on December 16, 2013 at 9:57 pm

  13. WTP said, on December 16, 2013 at 10:39 pm

  14. WTP said, on December 16, 2013 at 10:43 pm

  15. WTP said, on December 16, 2013 at 11:57 pm

    “How likely is it that people in the federal government either assisted in the 9/11 attacks or took no action to stop the attacks because they wanted the United States to go to war in the Middle East?” the poll asked.

    A full 22.6% of Democrats said it was “very likely.” Another 28.2% called it “somewhat likely.”

    This question is open to just a little misinterpretation. After all, it’s well known, and true, that there were unspecific warnings about a mounting terrorist attack and they were not followed up on. But I’ve now seen the other questions and crosstabs from the poll. There were more specific conspiracy scenarios, and Democrats disproportionately agreed with them.

    How likely is it that the Pentagon was not struck by an airliner captured by terrorists but instead was hit by a cruise missile fired by the United States military?

    Only 11.9 percent of all voters believed that this was “somewhat” or “very” likely, but 21.1 percent of Democrats did.

    How likely is it that the collapse of the Twin Towers in New York was aided by explosives secretly planted in the building?
    A full 15.9 percent of all voters bought that; the number rose to 24.8 percent among Democrats.


  16. magus71 said, on December 17, 2013 at 8:05 am

    Besides it being an overused argument, I have no problem comparing Obamacare to Nazi Fascism. There was more to Nazism than ovens. Benito Mussolini put it best:

    “All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”


    “Fascism should more appropriately be called Corporatism because it is a merger of state and corporate power.”

  17. WTP said, on December 17, 2013 at 4:01 pm

    You want non-Cohen Nazi/Hitler references from Dems, I give you non-Cohen Nazi/Hitler references from Dems:

    Pat Lehman, the “dean of the Kansas delegation” and the president of the Kansas Democratic Labor Committee, invoked Adolf Hitler to argue that Republicans are lying when they say voter ID efforts are designed to combat voter fraud.

    “It’s like Hitler said, if you’re going to tell a lie, tell a big lie, and if you tell it often enough and say it in a loud enough voice, some people are going to believe you,” Lehman said in an interview with The Wichita Eagle.


  18. WTP said, on December 17, 2013 at 4:03 pm

    I give you old-school GOP is Nazi stories:

    Maybe comparing Republicans to Nazis started with the 1964 Goldwater/Johnson presidential race.

    Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater accepted an invitation to visit an American military installation located in Bavaria, Germany. On “CBS Evening News” hosted by Walter Cronkite, correspondent Daniel Schorr said: “It is now clear that Sen. Goldwater’s interview with Der Spiegel, with its hard line appealing to right-wing elements in Germany, was only the start of a move to link up with his opposite numbers in Germany.” The reaction shot — when the cameras returned to Cronkite — showed the “most trusted man in America” gravely shaking his head.

    Or maybe it began when Goldwater accepted the Republican nomination, and Democratic California Gov. Pat Brown said the “stench of fascism is in the air.”

    Or maybe the Republicans-as-fascists narrative really jump-started during the 1968 presidential campaign. For commentary at the political conventions that year, ABC hired left-wing pundit Gore Vidal and matched him with conservative pundit William F. Buckley. If the network was looking for fireworks, they were not disappointed. Quarreling with Buckley over the impact of anti-Vietnam War dissidents, Gore called Buckley a “crypto-Nazi.” Incensed, Buckley fired back: “Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi, or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.”


  19. WTP said, on December 17, 2013 at 4:04 pm

    And more recent…from the same article:

    More recently, former Vice President Al Gore said: “(George W. Bush’s) executive branch has made it a practice to try and control and intimidate news organizations, from PBS to CBS to Newsweek. … And every day, they unleash squadrons of digital brownshirts to harass and hector any journalist who is critical of the president.”

    Entertainer and liberal activist Harry Belafonte, when asked whether the number and prominence of blacks in the Bush administration suggested a lack of racism, said, “Hitler had a lot of Jews high up in the hierarchy of the Third Reich.”

    Then-NAACP Chairman Julian Bond pulled out the Nazi card in 2004 while criticizing congressional Republicans and the White House: “They preach racial equality but practice racial division. … Their idea of equal rights is the American flag and Confederate swastika flying side by side.”

    Bond later clarified whom he meant by “they.” Speaking at historically black Fayetteville State University in North Carolina in 2006, Bond said, “The Republican Party would have the American flag and the swastika flying side by side.”


    Damn, this is so easy I don’t even have to change articles…

  20. WTP said, on December 17, 2013 at 4:08 pm

    John Burton, the chairman of the California Democratic Party, has apologized for comparing Republicans to Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels, a comment that quickly sparked outcry from the GOP.


  21. WTP said, on December 17, 2013 at 4:10 pm

    House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has drawn conservative scorn for her latest salacious lie about conservatives, this time accusing Americans protesting ObamaCare of wearing “swastika armbands”
    – See more at: http://www.therightperspective.org/2009/08/07/pelosi-drops-the-swastika-bomb/#sthash.ZjKcN3eL.dpuf

    And now we’ve come full circle.

  22. WTP said, on December 17, 2013 at 4:28 pm

    And for an added bonus, here’s a whole web page of some 20 examples, a couple doubles from above but mostly “fresh”…


    Peruse at your leisure, Mike. Then get back to us with your “thoughts”.

  23. magus71 said, on December 18, 2013 at 1:43 pm

    Mike, if the the government controls everyone’s access to health care through a single payer system in Obamacare, how is this not communism?

    • WTP said, on December 18, 2013 at 3:04 pm

      Yes, once he gets his single-payer dream, which he is documented on video of saying was his goal, it will be communism. For now it’s not communism as long as he allows the rent-seeking insurance companies to do his bidding. Right now it is more similar to fascism. But per your earlier comment regarding quotes from Benito M., you already knew that. Just closing a loophole Mike was sure to pounce upon.

      • magus71 said, on December 18, 2013 at 3:12 pm

        Notice how the language is carefully crafted: Public Option and Single Payer.

  24. T. J. Babson said, on December 18, 2013 at 1:59 pm

    This just in:

    John Podesta was just named as a new senior-level adviser to President Obama last week, but he’s already ruffling Republican feathers.

    In a profile published late Tuesday night by Politico Magazine, Podesta is quoted comparing Republicans to the infamous cult led by Jim Jones, who was responsible for the 1978 cyanide poisoning of more than 900 of his followers in Guyana.


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