Hyperbole

An argument that deceives by metaphor or exaggeration, and sometimes by changing the meaning of words.H40

There is a lot to be said for exaggeration—the wilder the better. Here are some suggestions about how to be excused from having to talk to a lady you are trying to avoid:

Will your grace command me any service to the world’s end? I will go on the slightest errand now to the Antipodes that you can devise to send me on; I will fetch you a tooth-picker now from the furthest inch of Asia, bring you the length of Prester John’s foot, fetch you a hair off the great Cham’s beard, do you any embassage to the Pigmies, rather than hold three words’ conference with this harpy. You have no employment for me?

Benedick, in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, c.1599.H41

There is no danger of missing the point there, but hyperbole becomes deception when changes to commonly-received meanings are sneaked in, in the hope that the other person will either fall for it, or will not notice. Here is some hyperbole: the writer is arguing that industrial agriculture and genetic modification (GM) technology are nothing new:

A few thousand years ago hybrid grasses thrown up by nature were gathered from the wild and developed under unnatural (i.e., weeded) conditions in a wheatfield (i.e., monoculture) and fertilised artificially (i.e., with gathered dung). The dung was collected from genetically modified (i.e., domesticated) beasts.H42

If the meaning of “genetic modification” is extended to include the long tradition of patient observation and selection which bred the crops and animals which now feed us, then we are left with no name for the technology which directly intervenes in the structure and composition of DNA. The wheatfields of the past were not monocultures; they were rotations, which planted and rested the land in different ways year by year; and dung returns fertility in a manner which is in no way artificial. But when the words mean whatever the writer wants them to mean, entering a dark area between the joke and the serious, you can amusingly say nothing, when there is something that urgently needs to be said. This is the Devil’s voice; if it’s right, it’s right; if it’s wrong, it’s only a joke.

Hyperbole, like a spirited horse, needs to be treated with respect and firmness, or it will run away with you. Aristotle suggests guidelines—not for hyperbole, but for rhetoric, which is close—clarity; aptness (“neither too mundane nor too high-flown: it must be appropriate”); and invention (it should contain something new). Shakespeare thought this through, too: on the one hand . . .

Swear me, Kate, like a lady as thou art,
A good mouth-filling oath . . .H43

but plain speaking comes as a relief, too. After Falstaff’s claim to have fought off fifty-three bandits in the dark, the Prince explains quietly:

We two saw you four set on four, and bound them and were masters of their wealth—mark now, how a plain tale shall put you down. Then did we two set on you four, and, with a word, out-faced you from your prize, and have it, yea, and can show it you here in the house.H44

Unfortunately, the horse Hyperbole is indeed running out of control, all the time: “Meat is murder.” “Alternative medical practitioners are witch doctors for the gullible.” “If the organic movement had its way we’d all be going out digging up roots and shooting game with bows and arrows.” “American foreign policy consists of bombing the shit out of anyone they disagree with.”

In fact, these are not hard to handle, but then we get to something more insidious. Here are seven techniques—members of the family of Newspeak introduced to us by George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four, and studied in more detail by the linguistic philosopher Françoise Thom in her analysis of the language of Soviet Communism.H45 She supplies many of the examples:

1. Summary dismissal. This is simply name-calling: “reactionary”, “potential terrorist”, “racist”, “bigot”, “elitist”, “xenophobe” are nouns you cannot argue with; they are thought-crimes, sitting there banning further progress.H46

2. Lack of shifters. A shifter is a word which acquires a meaning from its context; it does not impose a pre-defined meaning on the argument. For example, “now” in normal speech means “the time at which I am speaking” (but that could be any time). In Newspeak it means “at this stage in history, from which we will be swept along towards the fulfilment of our purpose”. “We”, in Newspeak, means “those of us who are destined to take this movement forward”. This is linguistic fast food: you don’t have to apply your mind; the authoritarian language does it for you. Just open the packaging and there it is.H47

3. Comparatives. Aims are described in terms of progress towards a goal, rather than reaching it. The benefits of maintaining the needed signs of progress are facilitated if the goal itself is meaningless or impossible. Phrases like “more developed”, “ever closer”, “more competitive”, “fairer”, “greener”, “more climate-friendly”, tell us that the authorities are dancing as fast as they can, and that we have to dance with them, for longer and longer. Examples:

a. Socialist hopes for convergence between the highest values of spirit and politics:

Under the conditions of mature socialism, the bond between economic progress and socio-political and spiritual progress becomes ever closer.H48

b. The European Union’s permanent progress affirmed in the constitutional treaty:

The peoples of Europe, in creating an ever closer union among them, are resolved . . .

As Roger Scruton notes, the treaty defines “a project of ‘ever closer union’, without pausing to consider how much union has so far been attained or how much union would be desirable”. Nor to ask the peoples of Europe these questions.H49

c. The terms of the climate change discussion, which sees the task as being to reduce emissions and impacts (or move towards agreeing to do so), when in fact the need is to halt them, or even reverse them, quickly enough to avoid the looming tipping point. As the energy analyst David MacKay points out, the phrase “Every little helps” is misleading. If it is not enough to stop climate breakdown, then it hasn’t helped. He suggests that a more truthful way of putting it would be, “If everyone does a little, we’ll achieve only a little.”H50

4. The imperative. Example: “The important changes in Soviet society must receive profound scientific expression.”H51

5. Manichaeism. The presumption is of a world deeply divided into two hostile and irreconcilable camps, creating a dialectic which is an inexhaustible source of hyperbole. Everything can be discussed in terms of success and failure in the struggle: to bring evidence and thought to the matter can be seen as a punishable failure to take part in it. In Nazi Germany Kampf and kämpferisch (struggle, struggle-related) were in constant use as expressions of commitment to the cause.H52

6. The “organic” metaphor suggests naturalness, wholesomeness, predestined growth, continuity. It claims for current projects a status beyond challenge as the natural unfolding of evolution: the new technologies and applied sciences have their own momentum and inevitability which we should not question.H53

And that’s a shame, because organic does of course have a positive meaning. So does the implied idea of the “inevitable”. It may, for instance, be a property of every word in a poem, each one (as W.H. Auden writes) seeming “inevitable, the only word which could accurately express the poet’s meaning”. The poem is not just the medium, nor the message; it gives an idea an independence and a personality. But “organic”, and “inevitable”, alike, can cause trouble.H54

7. Passionate muddle.

The hopes of the capitalists danced furiously on the still open wounds of the murdered people . . .H55

And four more from a different ideology:

8. Imposed criteria apply criteria from a different sphere. They deliberately miss the point: the Boy Scouts’ camp fire is not hygienic; the butter knife in your picnic basket could be used to stab someone; the opera’s casting director blatantly discriminates on the basis of gender and musical ability (False Sameness).

9. Unctuous paternalism: your home, comfort and safety are what really matter to us (Latin: unguentum ointment, grease).

10. Parody (the Straw Man) summarises the other side’s argument in the most absurd way possible.

11. Summary abstraction. The use of the generic (animal, fruit, vehicle, alcohol, education) instead of the specific (cat, blackberries, wheelbarrow, pint, story). This assists top-down instruction, disabling the local particular.

Here is an illustration of summary abstraction. A European Union directive which excludes dogs from farmhouse kitchens came into force in 2008: it is now illegal for the owners of ‘bed and breakfast’ guesthouses to allow dogs into food preparation areas (i.e., kitchens), and owners who cannot for practical reasons exclude their dogs (e.g., by keeping them in an outhouse or the car) are having to decide whether to get rid of their dogs or to close down their ‘B and Bs’. Fortunately, there is an environmental health officer at hand to explain to us what that dog sleeping by the Aga really means. His explanation contains summary abstractions, IMPOSED CRITERIA and parody. Think of the implications of summary abstraction for “animals in kitchens”: if he means every type of animal—cobras, tarantulas, komodo dragons, polar bears, seagulls and cane toads—he is, of course, quite right . . .

Most people would agree it is not hygienic to have animals in kitchens where food is being prepared. A bed and breakfast may be somebody’s home but once a room is used to prepare HIGH-RISK FOOD that is going to be sold to members of the public, it takes on a different meaning. If there was a food poisoning outbreak that was traced back to those premises, it would not be much of a defence in court to say “It is OK because it is our home.”H56

When everything peculiar to a person or situation has been blanked out, there is nothing for a response with any warmth or humanity to attach itself to. What remains is official detachment, slipping easily into cold hatred. The expert-training for this involves learning to force the detail—luminous, dancing detail—into summary abstractions, sequences of instruction designed to classify details and to deal with them in bulk. You can get a professional qualification in not seeing the trees for the wood.

And yet, at the other end of the spectrum of hyperbole, there are the ecstatic exaggerations of Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing. So hyperbole is not all bad. It gets Benedick off on his travels. And it may be a necessary device in argument. It may be needed, for instance, to get people to concentrate on a critical question, to obscure differences sufficiently to achieve concerted action, to stimulate the emotion needed to get action of any kind, or to shock an opponent into switching on her brain: its deceptions are generally used for the bad purpose of corrupt logic, but sometimes they are needed. The important thing is to avoid being taken in by the other person’s hyperbole, or by your own.

 

Related entries:

Fallacies, Special Pleading, Necessity, Conversation, Humility.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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