As my many thousands of readers know, I'm fond of the occasional hyperbolic statement. And as long as we all agree that hyperbole is there, I don't have a problem with that. But a lot of people do have a problem with hyperbole; they think it's not constructive, not conducive to good argument.
In some circumstances, these people have a point. Hyperbole is not appropriate in every domain. "It was only hyperbole" is clearly not an acceptable defence in a perjury trial, and neither is hyperbole acceptable in a scientific publication. But this is not science; this is art. This is not an attempt to model reality, but to improve on it. Here, I value rhetoric more than logic; what matters here is not truth, but beauty. And dithering, half-heartedness, meticulousness, caution, timidity, hesitancy and pedantry all offend my sense of aesthetics.
When you read these pages, I invite you into another world: not the real world, where I have all the Sturm und Drang of a wet parsnip, but instead a world of giant passions, of big opinions, each held bravely to the last, in defiance of humanity. In this world, I'd sooner swear that 2 and 2 make 5, and blaspheme against all that is good and holy, than resemble a good Protestant. Here, nothing is held in moderation, temperance is not a virtue, and nothing is a shade of grey. There are no plains, only mountains and valleys; there is no drizzle, only torrential hail. People here exist at the limits of their emotions. No one here is ever mildly pleased, or slightly discomforted; life is agony and ecstasy and nothing in between.
Leaving such romantic notions aside, I admit there are times when I find hyperbolic language annoying -- in writing I disagree with. When I see some hyperbolic rant advocating a position I object to, it's highly tempting to conclude that the hyperbole is turning me off -- when in fact, hyperbole is the only reason I'm reading in the first place. More often than not, the same opinions couched in polite or diplomatic language would be aesthetically disgusting along with everything else. When irritated by hyperbole, I have to remember to look not at the rant, but at the opinion underneath it; not at the exaggeration, but the thing being exaggerated. Most of the time, this is the real source of irritation.
Let's look at some irritating examples:
"You know as well as everyone else that the reason so many American soldiers died in Vietnam is that we did not fight to win the war. And you know why we didn't? Simply to save appearances to leftist liberal jerks like you. We could have finished off Vietnam in 20 minutes. And we could have finished off Iraq in 20 minutes. We're simply trying to be too nice."
I don't believe this person is seriously advocating the nuclear annihalation of either Iraq or Vietnam. There is clear hyperbole here, and the mere fact of hyperbole is not disgusting. But, the thought being exaggerated -- that the US should have pounded Iraq even more aggressively and with even less regard for civilian casualties -- is disgusting.
"Take the crescent out of the equation and and you wouldn't need a ["Coexist"] bumper sticker at all. Indeed, coexistence is what the Islamists are at war with; or, if you prefer, pluralism, the idea that different groups can rub along together within the same general neighbourhood. There are many trouble spots across the world but, as a general rule, even if one gives no more than a cursory glance at the foreign pages, it's easy to guess at least one of the sides: Muslims v Jews in Palestine, Muslims v Hindus in Kashmir, Muslims v Christians in Nigeria, Muslims v Buddhists in southern Thailand, Muslims v (your team here). Whatever one's views of the merits on a case by case basis, the ubiquitousness of one team is a fact."
Perhaps even this writer isn't ignorant enough to believe that the "ubiquitousness" of Muslims in "trouble spots" is "a fact"; indeed, even a "cursory glance" at recent history will show him a "trouble spot" in Sri Lanka that features no Muslims, another in Northern Ireland that featured no Muslims, and several CIA-backed "trouble spots" in Latin America. So I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he's indulging in a little hyperbole. But what is the thought being exaggerated? That one religious or ethnic group is responsible for most of the world's troubles. A thought that is racist and offensive, however I look at it.
"What is clear is this: anti-Consumerism is misogyny. To hate shopping and all of its representations is to hate women. [...] As women cower against the crash of glass, pitifully trying to cover their heads with the tiny shield of a Gold Card, these Green stormtroopers destroy women's last safe inner space, their cultural vulva. And as these stupid boys spread their phallocentric terror under the guise of "anti-Consumerism," right-wing rich men applaud. With every Bloomingdale's mannequin beaten, terrorized and raped by these vandals, the male purveyors of far darker, more sinister fashions -- the burqa, the veil, and the miniskirt -- look on with glee."
Clearly, some kind of hyperbole is going on here. It's hard to identify a single consistent strand of thought underlying the hysteria -- all I know is that it's an attempt to put a "left" spin on consumer capitalism. The writer tries to portray major retail corporations, which exploit third-world sweatshop workers (most of whom are women) for the profit of their right-wing rich shareholders (most of whom are men) as icons of feminism. Underneath the bluster, this is merely "greed is good" repackaged as a left-liberal creed. A notion which here is just as repugnant and tiresome as in all its other manifestations.
Perhaps because of examples like the above, people have learned to associate hyperbole with moronic, offensive opinions, or simplistic or muddled thought. But this is not always the case. Hyperbole is merely a stylistic device; in making a point, it is the taste of some writers to say more than they mean, to eschew intricate, delicate brushwork in favour of bold strokes on a vast canvas. These writers are confident that their readers -- the right readers -- will be able to pick up on their intentions. Take the following examples:
"I have seen, I believe, all of the most unlovely towns of the world; they are all to be found in the United States. [...] But nowhere on this earth, at home or abroad, have I seen anything to compare to the villages that huddle along the line of the Pennsylvania from the Pittsburgh yards to Greensburg. They are incomparable in color, and they are incomparable in design. It is as if some titanic and aberrant genius, uncompromisingly inimical to man, had devoted all the ingenuity of Hell to the making of them. They show grotesqueries of ugliness that, in retrospect, become almost diabolical. One cannot imagine mere human beings concocting such dreadful things, and one can scarcely imagine human beings bearing life in them."
Mencken almost certainly didn't believe that he had seen all of the ugliest towns in the world, and I venture to guess that he would have preferred to live in a Pennsylvania steel town than, say, a mud village in the Congo. But underneath the hyperbole, the point he goes on to make -- about the manner in which such miserable architecture reflects the society that made it -- is lucid and penetrating.
"If someone does not appreciate fine wine, he or she simply has NO right to enjoy fine music."
Again, hyperbole. I don't believe this person is seriously suggesting that we curb the rights of those among us who can't tell the difference between good plonk and bad. The thought underneath? That people who appreciate excellence in one form of human endeavour should be able to appreciate excellence in another. Hardly an offensive notion, even if you disagree; and here it's expressed with an amusingly self-aware ultra-snobbery.
So, kids, the moral of the story is: there's no reason to be afraid of hyperbole, in spite of what certain people may tell you. There are some for whom the presence of hyperbole, as with profanity, sarcasm and shows of emotion, offers a convenient excuse to retire "victorious" from a discussion. These people are, without exception, a bunch of cowardly, ignorant, self-satisfied, sanctimonious wankers. And that's no exaggeration.