On exaggeration

by The Editor

SERIES: The Thing About is a weekly Business Day column designed to discuss democratic ideas, ideals, values and principles from a liberal perspective. What role does exaggeration play in public discourse? For the most part, a problematic one. Very often one’s instinict in countering exaggeration is to use some kind of greater exaggeration in the other direction. And, before you know it, everything is exaggerated and a state of hysteria exists.

On exaggeration

By: Gareth van Onselen

28 May 2012

Exaggeration’s great strength is also its great weakness. Used selectively, it has the ability to draw disproportional attention to something by amplifying its nature. Over-used, its effect is the opposite: by depicting everything as extraordinary, soon nothing stands out as exceptional and one’s attention little more than a twitching head, jerking from one exaggeration to the next, without consideration or reflection.

One way or the other, however, it is necessary to understand that any exaggeration is misleading. Certainly it is not objective. And so it does not encourage reason or reasonableness, nor rationality.

Used sparingly and in a good cause, a case could be made it is worth employing – in much the same way that a white lie can be understood as a noble gesture. But in public life, generally it is best avoided. Best avoided and yet often over-indulged.

In a world defined by an ever-diversifying range of voices, competing on an ever-increasing variety of platforms for a finite amount of attention, many assume exaggeration the best way to be heard. And so it is rewarded rather than discouraged.

When exaggeration is encouraged in this way public debate becomes a destructive exercise revolving around how best to up the ante. Bold statements become exaggeration, exaggeration becomes gross exaggeration and before you know it, a perpetual state of hysteria rages – an environment in which moralisers thrive, prone as they are to exaggeration from first principles.

Those members of the fourth estate, who chose to report only on the sensational as opposed to the salient, play a powerful role in re-enforcing this state of affairs. When well set, it is a situation difficult to reverse, because reason appears an entirely unattractive prospect when surrounded by so much exciting hyperbole; difficult too because for most people their ability to concentrate on anything more than a sound bite has simultaneously been eroded away.

And so it not just reason that suffers at exaggeration’s hand, but application too.

An abbreviated version of this column first appeared in the Business Day. For more columns from The Thing About series, click here.

To follow Inside Politics by e-mail simply go to the bottom of the page and fill in your address. When you confirm it, you will receive an e-mail the moment any new post is loaded to the site.