The Power of Hyperbole

I used to listen to Sam Harris’s podcast. I had admired his atheism books, at the time when teaching evolution in schools was a whole thing, and he, along with Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett were the 4 Horsemen of the New Atheism.

His podcast was interesting, until, I speculate, he interviewed Charles Murray. He was then accused of being, if not a White Supremacist himself, at least in league with them or at the very least, one of their Useful Idiots. In any event, after that, whenever he had a woman on, he would, kind of whinily, ask whether she thought he was a White Supremacist… he wasn’t, right? How could anyone think that! It became a whole thing.

Around that time, he became quite alarmed at the rise of what we now call Cancel Culture, and bemoaned that when he tweeted something a lot of people didn’t like, he’d get a lot of very negative responses (Is it being “ratioed”? Not sure about the term…). He called this a Twitter Mob, and said it was like “public defenestration.”

As I was driving to or from work and heard this, my first thought was, no it’s not. It’s nothing like public defenestration. Okay, it’s public, but you survive a Twitter flame war. You walk away. He used other comparisons, too: guillotining, lynching. And… no. It’s not like being guillotined, because that KILLS YOU. Having people call you a douchebag, unpleasant as it certainly must be, doesn’t kill you.

I became disenchanted with him, unsubscribed from the podcast.

He was using a rhetorical technique called hyperbole. Exaggeration for effect. Except, it’s also a lie. If he had said, I was so upset I wanted to die, that might be hyperbolic but still true. But using defenestration is a bit unfair to people who have been publicly defenestrated. What would they say? Wow, that was terrible; just like being the target of mean tweets. Doubt it.

During the pandemic, we have seen similar hyperbole on the part of those who don’t want to wear masks or get vaccinated, but still want to visit stores and restaurants. For them, it’s either like slavery or like the holocaust. Like that rather dim lady who sold yellow stars with “vaccinated” on them.

I never meet people like that, here in West LA, but when I read about them, I suppose they have to use hyperbole, because if they didn’t, they’d seem like idiots. If they carried signs that read, I don’t like wearing masks, they’re uncomfortable and make me sweat! Or I don’t want to get vaccinated, because my tribal affiliation makes that a difficult choice! that would be honest, but they wouldn’t seem quite as heroic.

If I ever meet one of these people, and my family is not around, I would go up to them and say, I understand you’re upset, but whatever the thing is like, it’s not like slavery or the holocaust. Rather, it’s like something you don’t want to do for reasons that have more to do with tribalism than anything else. Put that on your sign.