A Philosopher's Blog

Trump & Truthful Hyperbole

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on December 4, 2015

In Art of the Deal Donald Trump calls one of his rhetorical tools “truthful hyperbole.” He both defends and praises it as “an innocent form of exaggeration — and a very effective form of promotion.” As a promoter, Trump made extensive use of this technique. Now he is using it in his bid for President.

Hyperbole is an extravagant overstatement and it can be either positive or negative in character. When describing himself and his plans, Trump makes extensive use of positive hyperbole: he is the best and every plan of his is the best. He also makes extensive use of negative hyperbole—often to a degree that seems to cross over from exaggeration to fabrication. In any case, his concept of “truthful hyperbole” is well worth considering.

From a logical standpoint, “truthful hyperbole” is an impossibility. This is because hyperbole is, by definition, not true.  Hyperbole is not a merely a matter of using extreme language. After all, extreme language might accurately describe something. For example, describing Daesh as monstrous and evil would be spot on. Hyperbole is a matter of exaggeration that goes beyond the actual facts. For example, describing Donald Trump as monstrously evil would be hyperbole. As such, hyperbole is always untrue. Because of this, the phrase “truthful hyperbole” says the same thing as “accurate exaggeration”, which nicely reveals the problem.

Trump, a brilliant master of rhetoric, is right about the rhetorical value of hyperbole—it can have considerable psychological force. It, however, lacks logical force—it provides no logical reason to accept a claim. Trump also seems to be right in that there can be innocent exaggeration. I will now turn to the ethics of hyperbole.

Since hyperbole is by definition untrue, there are two main concerns. One is how far the hyperbole deviates from the truth. The other is whether the exaggeration is harmless or not. I will begin with consideration of the truth.

While a hyperbolic claim is necessarily untrue, it can deviate from the truth in varying degrees. As with fish stories, there does seem to be some moral wiggle room in regards to proximity to the truth. While there is no exact line (to require that would be to fall into the line drawing fallacy) that defines the exact boundary of morally acceptable exaggeration, some untruths go beyond that line. This line varies with the circumstances—the ethics of fish stories, for example, differs from the ethics of job interviews.

While hyperbole is untrue, it does have to have at least some anchor in the truth. If it does not, then it is not exaggeration but fabrication. This is the difference between being close to the truth and being completely untrue. Naturally, hyperbole can be mixed in with fabrication.

For example, if it is claimed that some people in America celebrated the terrorism of 9/11, then that is almost certainly true—there was surely at least one person who did this. If someone claims that dozens of people celebrated in public in America on 9/11 and this was shown on TV, then this might be an exaggeration (we do not know how many people in America celebrated) but it certainly includes a fabrication (the TV part). If it is claimed that hundreds did so, the exaggeration might be considerable—but it still contains a key fabrication. When the claim reaches thousands, the exaggeration might be extreme. Or it might not—thousands might have celebrated in secret. However, the claim that people were seen celebrating in public and video existed for Trump to see is false. So, his remarks might be an exaggeration, but they definitely contain fabrication. This could, of course, lead to a debate about the distinction between exaggeration and fabrication. For example, suppose that someone filmed himself celebrating on 9/11 and showed it to someone else. This could be “exaggerated” into the claim that thousands celebrated on video and people saw it. However, saying this is an exaggeration would seem to be an understatement. Fabrication would seem the far better fit in this hypothetical case.

One way to help determine the ethical boundaries of hyperbole is to consider the second concern, namely whether the hyperbole (untruth) is harmless or not. Trump is right to claim there can be innocent forms of exaggeration. This can be taken as exaggeration that is morally acceptable and can be used as a basis to distinguish such hyperbole from lying.

One realm in which exaggeration can be quite innocent is that of storytelling. Aristotle, in the Poetics, notes that “everyone tells a story with his own addition, knowing his hearers like it.” While a lover of truth Aristotle recognized the role of untruth in good storytelling, saying that “Homer has chiefly taught other poets the art of telling lies skillfully.” The telling of tall tales that feature even extravagant extravagation is morally acceptable because the tales are intended to entertain—that is, the intention is good. In the case of exaggerating in stories to entertain the audience or a small bit of rhetorical “shine” to polish a point, the exaggeration is harmless—which ties back to the possibility that Trump sees himself as an entertainer and not an actual candidate.

In contrast, exaggerations that have a malign intent would be morally wrong. Exaggerations that are not intended to be harmful, yet prove to be so would also be problematic—but discussing the complexities of intent and consequences would take the essay to far afield.

The extent of the exaggeration would also be relevant here—the greater the exaggeration that is aimed at malign purposes or that has harmful consequences, the worse it would be morally. After all, if deviating from the truth is (generally) wrong, then deviating from it more would be worse. In the case of Trump’s claim about thousands of people celebrating on 9/11, this untruth feeds into fear, racism and religious intolerance. As such, it is not an innocent exaggeration, but a malign untruth.

 

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  1. TJB said, on December 4, 2015 at 9:50 am

    Hillary Clinton: “Muslims are peaceful and tolerant people and have nothing whatsoever to do with terrorism.”

    Innocent exaggeration or malign untruth?

    • ronster12012 said, on December 4, 2015 at 1:17 pm

      TJ

      Does anyone in the media pick over all Hillaryisms to see which ones may be lies? From what I see I doubt it but you are closer to the action and may correct me if i am wrong. And would it be seen as bad form to hold her to the same standards as Trump?

      • TJB said, on December 4, 2015 at 4:38 pm

        ronster:

        There is a clear double standard, although Hillary will have it tougher than Obama. In Obama’s case, even the late night comics were reluctant to make fun of him. Hillary will not get the same level of deference, but she will not be attacked the way Republicans will.

        The key to understanding the Dems is to go back to 1965 and the Civil Rights movement. Now think and act like nothing has changed in the past 50 years. Presto! You are a 21st century Democrat.

        • ronster12012 said, on December 5, 2015 at 4:08 am

          TJ

          Thanks for that clarification. These double standards are always somewhat vague and subjective (but do exist) because if they were so blatant that the dimmest out there could discern them they couldn’t exist.

          Will Hillaryget a tougher run than Obama because of her skin colour or because she is known as a total bitch(though the Dems can at least say she is ‘our bitch’)?

          • TJ said, on December 5, 2015 at 8:56 am

            Another key to understanding liberals is to recognize that they generally are kind people who want to help others. However, many liberals become racists themselves because they start to think blacks really aren’t up to the job and can’t accomplish anything without their help. I think the press feels this way about Obama.

            They don’t feel quite the same way about Hillary–perhaps because so many journalists these days are women. They feel Hillary is generally competent and can take care of herself. Hence they are a little tougher on her.

        • wtp said, on December 5, 2015 at 9:40 am

          The key to understanding the Dems is to go back to 1965 and the Civil Rights movement. Now think and act like nothing has changed in the past 50 years. Presto! You are a 21st century Democrat.

          I know what you’re trying to say but it’s much worse than that. Keep in mind that far more Dems opposed the civil rights movement as supported it. Among those who supported it, they would more likely fit in ideologically with mainstream GOP than HRC or BHO. Some would definitely fit the Sanders mold as many were socialists. But even those were not comfortable with the Nation of Islam and other extremist factions who are coddled and admired by Dems, the media, and academia today.

          The 21 Century Democrat is increasingly a knee-jerk anti-common sense, blame whitey and America first, media and academia brain washed zombie. Most profoundly the influential/public ones. Those with real jobs, like the D’s that I know, including many of my in-laws, are disgusted with what has become of this country under BHO and such but will still walk into that voting booth in November of next year and vote D. It’s an amazing psychological phenomenon. Almost a Stockholm Syndrome.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 4, 2015 at 1:34 pm

      In the critical thinking biz, that is called a glowing generality. It is, as you note, an untruth. It is, however, on par with the usual glowing generalities like “Americans are a tolerant people” or “Canadians are nice.”

      The truth would be: Muslims are generally as tolerant and peaceful as other people and there are Muslim terrorists.

      • ronster12012 said, on December 4, 2015 at 2:05 pm

        Michael

        Are you sure that moslems are tolerant as any other people? I would suggest that insofar as they are moslem they are intolerant, after all, the koran commands them to tax, dispossess, kill, or enslave kafirs.

        Tolerant? No so much IMO.

      • TJB said, on December 4, 2015 at 4:14 pm

        Mike, I’ll burn a Bible and you burn a Koran. We can directly test the tolerance of Christians vs. Muslims.

        Deal?

      • TJB said, on December 4, 2015 at 4:42 pm

        Mike, do you believe that there are terrorists who happen to be Muslim, or do you believe that their religious beliefs are directly responsible for the terrorism?

        • wtp said, on December 4, 2015 at 6:14 pm

          TJ, go back and look at the West & Islam post. No serious answers from Mike. Similar with damn near any post in the last 5 years or more. One-sided arguments or no argument at all. He only will address issues on his turf, if you accept his reality. It’s all bullshit. You take the time and effort to engage in an intellectual discussion and you get squat in return. It’s bullshit. And you and I pay for this bullshit to be taught to our youth. Thank God most of them have the good sense to phone it in. If arguing with Mike over the last half a decade or so hasn’t taught you that a good chunk of our educational institutions are nothing more than a big f’n scam, what would it take for you to understand this?

      • wtp said, on December 4, 2015 at 6:36 pm

        Christ. Just saw this: In the critical thinking biz…..followed by…well, it’s all right there.

        I really have no words…That such a mind is even remotely taken seriously, let alone employed to teach other minds…is…I got nothin’. God help us.

        • TJB said, on December 5, 2015 at 12:09 am

          When Trump exaggerates it is a “malign untruth,” but when Hillary exaggerates it is a “glowing generality.”

          All clear now. Because racism. And who cares if some white people die.

          • WTP said, on December 5, 2015 at 10:47 am

            Why say “white people”? Haven’t checked it out but I’m guessing many in that San Bernardino shooting where non-white. And given it was a government employee function, more likely. In fact, more likely they were mostly D’s getting killed there. At some point these jihadis may kill enough D’s in or around heavy D cities and such that D’s will wake up. They just gotta find a way to pin it all on Donald Trump. Watch this space for this developing story.

            • TJB said, on December 5, 2015 at 11:30 am

              Actually, I’m beginning to think the Dems are afraid of Trump. He is trying to splinter the Dem coalition. There is no reason for blacks to support unrestricted immigration, and no reason for Asians to support affirmative action. These are wedge issues that can be exploited.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 8, 2015 at 11:42 am

              I’m fairly confident that Trump does not appeal to most Democrats. Or most Republicans.

            • WTP said, on December 8, 2015 at 1:36 pm

              I’m fairly confident that Trump does not appeal to most Democrats.

              Oh, I don’t know. His latest idea to not let any Muslims into the country, even American citizens who are returning, simply based on their being Muslim is unworkable, unconstitutional, pandering, unrealistic, stupid, and foolish. Seems like something right up the Dem’s alley.

          • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 8, 2015 at 11:39 am

            Glowing generalities are not called that because they are good, but because of the intent. They are aimed at presenting a positive spin on something. So, when I say that Clinton is using a “glowing generality” I am not endorsing or praising her anymore than I would be endorsing someone who used euphemisms. Like a glowing generality, euphemisms have a positive slant–that is their function.

            Trump’s exaggeration was not aimed at making a general claim with a positive aspect (a “glow”). Rather, his intent seems to be negative and motivated by no just or good motives. Hence, malign untruth.

      • WTP said, on December 9, 2015 at 2:40 pm

        The truth would be: Muslims are generally as tolerant and peaceful as other people and there are Muslim terrorists.

        According to Pew Research study:

        Muslims around the world strongly reject violence in the name of Islam. Asked specifically about suicide bombing, clear majorities in most countries say such acts are rarely or never justified as a means of
        defending Islam from its enemies.

        See, clear majorities. Clear…

        In most countries where the question was asked, roughly three-quarters or more
        Muslims reject suicide bombing and other forms of violence against civilians. And in
        most countries, the prevailing view is that such acts are never justified as a means of
        defending Islam from its enemies. Yet there are some countries in which substantial
        minorities think violence against civilians is at least sometimes justified. This view is
        particularly widespread among Muslims in the Palestinian territories (40%), Afghanistan
        (39%), Egypt (29%) and Bangladesh (26%).

        Hmmm….so according to Mike Math, generally speaking roughly a quarter of non-Muslims do not reject suicide bombing and other forms of violence against civilians. Best keep an eye on your fellow church parishioners, just in case. But then, considering the methodology:

        Conducting opinion polls in diverse societies necessitates adapting the survey to local sensitivities. In some countries, pretest results indicated the need to suppress certain questions to avoid offending respondents and/or risking the security of the interviewers. In other countries, interviewers considered some questions too sensitive to pretest. Thus, not all questions were asked in all countries. For example, interviewers in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Morocco indicated that certain questions about sexual preference and sexual behavior were too sensitive to be asked. Questions on these topics were either eliminated or modified in these countries.

        We are so fortunate here in the US that such things can more easily be done over the phone, you know for the security of the interviewers and all.

        http://www.pewforum.org/files/2013/04/worlds-muslims-religion-politics-society-full-report.pdf

        Scroll through the questions asked and responses from various countries starting about page 159 or so. Very interesting.

  2. ajmacdonaldjr said, on December 4, 2015 at 10:45 am

    “Here’s the thing. As the towers came down, some people indeed saw a group of five — not thousands, but five — Middle Eastern men clowning around and photographing themselves in front of the burning towers from the New Jersey waterfront. They weren’t Arabs, and they weren’t Muslims.

    “They were Israeli and Jewish – young men making asses of themselves, as some young men are wont to do. Perhaps not recognizing the import of what they were seeing.

    “How do I know this? I tracked one of their friends down to Jesus’ hometown, two months after the attack…”

    Read more: What Donald Trump might have seen on 9/11. Hint: Not ‘cheering’ Arabs http://politics.blog.ajc.com/2015/11/22/what-donald-trump-might-have-seen-on-911-hint-it-wasnt-cheering-arabs/

  3. ronster12012 said, on December 4, 2015 at 1:38 pm

    Michael

    Context is everything….so how about a bullshitters league table for *all* your presidential hopefuls. There’s no point in calling Trump a liar when all the candidates are liars, and your next prez will most certainly be a liar.

    The question is who lies least. So if all the candidates lies, exaggerations, hyperbole and simple mistakes were arranged in tabular form then a comparison would be easier.

  4. TJB said, on December 5, 2015 at 12:18 am

    “this untruth feeds into fear, racism and religious intolerance. As such, it is not an innocent exaggeration, but a malign untruth.”

    Mike, you need to explain how Trump’s remarks could possibly engender racism. If I attack Christianity, am I also feeding into racism? Are Muslims a race?

    • ronster12012 said, on December 5, 2015 at 4:13 am

      TJ

      It should also be noted that some fears are quite justified, racism (as exaggerated a petty social sin that it is) is not confined to white people nor are only christians capable of religious intolerance. If that were made clear then an objective discussion of these matters may take place….till then these shaming attempts only obscure any real points to be made.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 8, 2015 at 11:41 am

      This is because people generally associate Islam with Arabs, although they are obviously not the same. This is somewhat analogous to Judaism. Judaism is a religion that anyone can convert to, yet it is associated closely with an ethnicity.

      • WTP said, on December 8, 2015 at 12:25 pm

        Judaism is associated with AN ethnicity. Islam is popularly associated with many different ethnicities besides Arab, such as Turkic, Indonesian, Malaysian, African of numerous tribes and groups, Albanian, Bosnian, Khazakh, Xinjiang (China), etc. etc. etc. Though to your point, most of the problems tend to flow from the Arab groups.

  5. TJB said, on December 5, 2015 at 10:31 am

    This one is in honor of Magus.

    • WTP said, on December 5, 2015 at 10:40 am

      We can’t win this battle by sending James Taylor everywhere to sing John Lennon songs because, damn the rotten luck, we only have one James Taylor. We need to use our psychic energy and fight. This guy could teach us:

      I want to believe it’s fake. I truly want to believe…

      • TJB said, on December 5, 2015 at 11:34 am

        Priceless. Maybe Hillary will make him commandant of the Marine Corps in her new administration?

  6. TJB said, on December 7, 2015 at 12:42 pm

    Dems have totally lost it.

    • WTP said, on December 7, 2015 at 2:05 pm

      I don’t get it. What does this have to do with Howard Dean? Unless he’s planning to jump in the D race. Or perhaps, as you indicate, the D’s have sunk so far that HD is a voice of moderation. YEEEEAAAAAAH!!!!

      Thought to be fair, I never understood why his yell back in ’04 was such a deal killer. I mean, compared to everything else in that campaign.

      • T. J. Babson said, on December 7, 2015 at 2:12 pm

        “Free speech is good. Respecting others is better.”

        This is a recipe for totalitarianism.

        Say what you will about Mike, he has always tolerated speech, even disrespectful speech.

        • WTP said, on December 7, 2015 at 3:06 pm

          Oh, I agree. But just kinda odd since he’s not on the national stage, though I see now that he did go to Yale. Still kinda funny coming from HD, a guy who once said “I hate Republicans and everything they stand for” and “I want to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pick up trucks”, among other shoot-from-the-lip gems.

  7. TJB said, on December 7, 2015 at 3:20 pm

    He is a weathervane for what passes as “thinking” among Dems.

  8. TJB said, on December 7, 2015 at 3:26 pm

    Another suggested topic for Mike: Is America still a melting pot?

    Dems seemingly believe that putting pressure on immigrants to assimilate is being disrespectful.


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