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In a series of posts on persuasive language, commonly referred to as rhetoric, I mentioned some rhetorical devices that can make a message more persuasive and compelling.

One of the devices I described in this piece is hyperbole, which is intentional exaggeration for effect, such as when a mother complains to her child that “I spend half my life cleaning up after you!”

In most cases, as with that complaining mom, we can recognize when such exaggeration should not be taken literally. But there is a darker side to hyperbole, especially when this device is used to shut down discussion about important topics.

For example, over the last few weeks there has been considerable controversy over a law passed in Florida called the “Parental Rights in Education” bill which included a provision that:

Classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.

Now there is a lot to talk about and debate regarding this and similar legislation being passed across the country that deal with how topics like race and sexuality are presented to schoolchildren.

Like many dilemmas we face as a society, this controversy involves legitimate competing goods, including how to best help young people navigate their sexual identities versus parents’ rights to determine when conversations about such difficult matters should begin.

One way to go when confronted with these types of dilemmas is to deal with them honestly and decisively using “tools-of-the-trade” long-time LogicCheck readers have learned, such as:

  • Doing your homework to determine exactly what it is that is being debated by, for example, reading through the legislation and parsing arguments on either side to determine if they are valid and sound.

  • Determining whether the issue rises to the level of needing legislative remedy by, for example, investigating whether complaints of rampant discussion of sexuality in elementary school are widespread or just based on limited anecdotal evidence.

  • Treating both allies and opponents charitably by engaging with their strongest arguments, rather than pouncing on their weakest ones or, worse, making up opponents’ positions and attacking them for things they didn’t say (and may not believe).

That third point highlights when hyperbole becomes an enemy of reasoned debate. For if you read mainstream news coverage on the Florida controversy, you’ll see the legislation often referred to as the “Don’t Say Gay” law (another rhetorical device, by the way, in this case rhyming) which implies that the law (and its supporters) are bigoted and homophobic. Not to be outdone, supporters of the Florida law and similar legislation lashed back at their opponents for supporting “grooming,” a term used to describe steps molesters take to win the trust of children they plan to abuse.

Perhaps I’m old fashioned, but I suspect that there is little to be understood, much less resolved, in a “debate” based primarily on accusations of bigotry vs. child molestation. While such accusations might help one side or the other rile enemies and gin up a base, this sort of hyperbole is primarily used to shut down debate by associating opponents with something heinous.

It would be one thing if these sorts of tactics were effective at changing people’s minds by, for example, shaming them into realizing the harm their beliefs might cause. But if you consider for a moment how you would react to being accused of bigotry or child molestation, I’m guessing such hyperbole would likely harden your position, rather than giving you a reason to consider the other side fairly.

If you look at all of the issues we have been unable to resolve over the last few decades, such as immigration, police violence, even war and peace, hyperbole continues to prevent any serious consideration of how to move forward on difficult problems.

Do we need to balance a nation’s responsibility to secure its borders with humanitarian considerations for those who enter the country without going through proper immigration channels? Or are we dealing with an invasion of COVID-infected rapists and murderers storming the border? Do we need to improve police training and procedures to prevent needless deaths during confrontations with cops? Or is policing a bigoted, repressive institution that should be defunded, if not disbanded? Is a military response to a crisis warranted, or it is just being proposed by warmongers (or opposed by appeasers)?

In all of these cases, injecting hyperbole into the discussion either leaves problems (like immigration) unresolved or makes matters worse by, for example, causing an exodus from professions like policing and teaching as people in those jobs decide they don’t need hyperbolic abuse on top of everything else that goes into those often-thankless jobs.

People in my biz are often accused of being wishy washy for pushing reason over more robust forms of debate, such as those involving hyperbole. And I suppose such critics have a point, assuming their goal is more of the gridlock, animosity, and needless suffering we’ve experienced since hyperbole became a substitute for honest conversation.


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