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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

Destructive Hyperbole

A recent photo of an anti-vaxx protester offered a perfect example of the corrosive rhetoric being employed to galvanize public opinion. The woman in question carried a sign which read: “I’d rather bury my family from COVID than see them ENSLAVED to the fear of it.” Now I imagine your reaction to this might be similar to mine, a sense of unbelief at the sheer stupidity of this statement followed by some incredulity that any sane person would suggest that it would be better for their loved ones to die rather than take steps to prevent their death because they were legitimately concerned about the possibility.

It got me thinking about the kinds of language that protestors –irrespective of the issue—use to try to sway public opinion and bring attention to their cause—and possibly themselves. Certainly, we might agree that this particular example was highly successful in gaining attention. It was so far beyond the pale that it gained national media coverage and was therefore seen by many millions more than would have seen it in a local protest. And that was the point, wasn’t it—to get attention. I do not fault the intent to try to raise the profile of a heartfelt issue—nor am I questioning the right to protest or the freedom of speech this woman enjoyed. But at the same time I would describe the language she employed as a form of destructive hyperbole. It is so provocative, so dramatic that it cannot fail to cause reaction. But it does not seek to convey any information, facts or arguments beyond the woman’s personal beliefs—if indeed they are as represented.

It raises the question—would this woman actually prefer the death of her children, spouse, or parents to fear of death—a fundamental human emotion? I do not actually know, but I am willing to bet that if she were faced with a very real life or death choice—not merely a rhetorical dilemma, she would not be so blithe. That is why I describe it as an example of hyperbole—a dramatically exaggerated statement, but I need to clarify why I consider this approach which has become so prevalent in the last decade so destructive.

I called it corrosive earlier because it wears away the norms of constructive dialog and leaves no room for either understanding nor a framework for further conversation. Nor is it intended to—it is finite and absolute, barring question or follow-up, only agreement or dismissal. The protestor has said in so many words, talk to the sign because I am not listening. Now why should any rational person reject conversation—even if it is only to persuade others of their views? I submit this person is rational—though of course I cannot know. I base my thesis on the fact that the statement she makes is carefully considered, it is not the ravings of an uneducated, or fanatical lunatic but rather someone with a clear purpose—as stated, to gain attention.

What makes this kind of behavior so destructive is that it invites people to line up in righteous agreement or equally sanctimonious rejection further escalating their differences and sooner or later words are left behind and replaced by actions, perhaps violent but at the least further polarizing in nature. Such escalating spirals are the hallmark of our current political divide and it comes as no surprise that politicians, always quick to mirror the temperament of their constituency, give more than tacit approval in their own rhetoric. It makes our world not only less safe, but also less malleable, forcing more of the undecided and moderate to the extremes.

As this is playing out currently with regard to the anti-vaxx movement it poses a hardening of lines on an issue that should be only about public health but has become about anything but. People are dying because they have bought into or been manipulated into believing that the issue is about personal freedoms, faith, or quack science. And we have seen the emergence of counter destructive behavior as well, those who express glee at the death of yet another Covid or vaccine denier. I cannot identify with either camp.I grieve for the dead regardless of whether their death is self-inflicted or otherwise. I despise those who contribute to the rhetorical escalation on both sides of the issue even as I defend their right to speak. To both I say, with freedom comes responsibility and with all actions come consequences.

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