Hyperbole Is Killing Me (Now That I Have Your Attention)

Hyperbole : extravagant exaggeration (as “mile-high ice-cream cones”) via Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Certainly hyperbole is not just a feature of the modern age. It is, after all, a time-honored oratorical device in the same lineage as synecdoche (those Greeks were clever people) and my first real introduction to the concept as a tool of persuasion was in Latin Class. But is hyperbole too common in the modern age? Are we now dulled to it because of its overuse or does it make us actually follow up on things to find out what kind of truth lies beyond the headline? I’ve had cause to ponder this recently, thanks to a few different articles that a friend posted on Facebook, and just some more general thoughts that have been bubbling on the subject thanks to the nature of modern reading.

See, what we see now are headlines, soundbites, whatever short bursts are out there in the static. The soundbites, the bottom crawl, 140 characters of tweets, whatever those are, they have the difficult mission of conveying as much information as possible in as few words and characters as they can. Headlines have the opposite goal of trying to pique readers just enough to make them click on the link, follow the jump, etc. In the backdrop that is the deafening roar of information in the modern world, we as individuals are tasked with selecting what is or isn’t important out of all of that, what deserves follow up and what we simply catalog as information based on the small amounts of information we are seeing. But right now, I’m not as interested in the overall Twitter affect (though I believe that started well before Twitter) in terms of condensing information. I’m curious about the effects of headlines and what we do or do not follow up on.

The long form certainly isn’t dead. Individual access in terms of creating the long form is better than ever, and plenty of great, literary individuals at a variety of publications are doing their part in creating great pieces just like we used to get from our hard-copy magazines (unless, of course, you still do get them from magazines. Good for you). Articles, ideas, extrapolations of thought processes that show definite care are still being “[written] out into the abyss” (yes, it’s lonely). And they can accomplish aims that a status update or tweet, for all its pithiness, cannot. The terminology may be changing, or even the media that it’s being created on, but our ability to create long form pieces and distribute them, whether via YouTube, a podcast, or just plain old words stacked up next to each other on the page, that remains. The question remains, though, whether using Facebook, or Twitter, or Tumblr, or whatever, how do we get individuals to look at and read, watch, listen to what’s out there?

Thus the purpose of a headline. These days, they are a mutable thing (I’m not sure that’s so good) for even a hard-copy institution. Watch the headline on a major story of a newspaper over the course of a day, and you may see the language change a couple times, in search of better specificity (or maybe better readership). Sites I frequent like The Washington Post, Slate, The Huffington Post, many of those headlines tend to be crafted by individuals who did not actually write the stories, though I’m sure the lines are blurring a little bit in that regard. And I frequently have to make decisions based on the minimal amount of information presented to see whether I want to take more time to learn. So I have to see things in those headlines or small tags that pique my interest or lead me to want to know more about the subject. This isn’t just true of a major news article. This is just as necessary on something as simple as a link shared by a friend on Facebook.

Google may be able to tell you what it thinks is your age and gender, but personally, I’d be more curious to see what kind of information Facebook collects about the outbound links I click on and what they say about me. Though it is not absolute, I will click on most things trans-related that skitter across my feed, because, well, selfishly, I like to know what’s out there. One of my friends (who is practically an aggregator unto himself) posted a link that piqued my interest immediately with the following headline: Transgender People are Completely Banned From Boarding Airplanes in Canada. The article goes on to talk at some length about a change in Canada’s regulations last year that potentially make it much more difficult for gender-variant individuals to fly. It is a strongly written post that contains a lot of good information. Not that I have any plans to fly in Canada any time soon, but you never know…here’s the thing, though. I can fly in Canada. I may still need to get my passport updated (haven’t gotten around to that but I’d have to to go to Canada), but it will most certainly say Female and Jane when I finally get to that because I have all the paperwork for that. Which means that the gender on my legal identification does match the gender I identify as. Which means I can fly. This isn’t to say that I don’t think the regulation is bullshit. It is. I remain dubious of the motivation, though I have not done extensive research personally to see what the motivation behind it may be. It strikes me as totally unnecessary discrimination under the guise of transportation safety. But to say that I’m completely banned from flying in Canada? It just isn’t true. Now the headline succeeded. I read and learned more, and were I Canadian, maybe I would have written my MP. Maybe more people looked because it said completely banned. But what of the people that didn’t? They are now armed with misinformation in that regard. Because like I said, I can fly in Canada based on that regulation. I am by no means the normative judge of trans people and how they should be in society, but where I fall, that law does not actually affect me (well, it affects me, but just go with this for a bit). Had I not read the entire post, I may have believed otherwise. In turn, I may have disseminated inaccurate information based on that attempted draw for my readership that failed.

Another example, this time in regard to something that I have less personal interest in. Same friend (see, I told you he should be an aggregator) posted a blog post with the following headline” Educating those outside the gun culture who’ve been defrauded. It’s a post about the fact that many statistics sited by the anti-gun lobby are inaccurate and not based on much of anything. But defrauded? We had a discussion of this on my friend’s wall, in which he pulled out the Merriam-Webster definition of defraud. Frankly, it all struck me as a bit of a stretch. This is nothing against the information an opinions contained within said post. It really doesn’t matter if you agree or not; defraud is not an accurate word to describe what’s happening to people outside of gun culture. Of course it’s already a charged topic, but to say that someone’s ability to get a firearm in this country has been deprived by a statistic sited by individuals who are anti-gun is an exaggeration. It conflates a much more complex situation, one that frankly would require far more space than I wish to devote at this time. But the individuals have most certainly not been defrauded. There are many more reasons beyond simple statistics that might account for why one doesn’t own a gun, and I personally find it hard to believe that the laws are that much of a deterrent given that, at least in the United States, it’s not that hard to get a gun. Maybe the kind of gun one can own is restricted, and maybe the amount of work it takes is a more than some individuals think it should be, to say that one is deprived of that right in this country by statistical misinformation? Seems like a pot kettle black sort of situation to me. Of course the author never says that all people outside of gun culture have been defrauded. I’m taking my own assumptions into it as well, but I don’t assume that he means that. I just think it’s a poor choice of words.

There are a lot of assumptions carried just simply by the words that we as individuals choose to describe the situations and events that comprise our lives. Don’t get me wrong, English is certainly a clever language. We as speakers are constantly refashioning it, and one of its strengths is its malleability. Not that every language isn’t malleable, but there is no particularly strong descpritive organization in English like there is, say, in French. But I feel we would be less desensitized to hyperbole if we were not subjected to it so much. I still click on the link, but I am carrying the tacit assumption that the hyperbole is inaccurate at best and malicious at worst. We are constantly arming each other with misinformation in our society, and it seems that piling on more misinformation just to get someone to look at what you said isn’t the answer. But I am just as guilty in the headline I wrote. Did you get far enough to discover that nice little touch of hypocrisy?

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