Going Too Far
Hyperbole is an uncommon term to describe something very common in our culture: the use of exaggeration for dramatic effect or emphasis. Saying something “hit you like a tidal wave” or “Dave went nuclear on Steve” are casual examples of such language, and usually it does the job — generating a few laughs, illustrating the degree or magnitude of some event or situation, etc. It’s usually a fun and colorful way to make an otherwise mundane statement more interesting, and it can be very effective.
But sometimes, it can go too far.
I was on vacation with my family a couple of weeks ago — just an overnight visit out-of-town, really — and we were walking down a busy sidewalk. Despite all the traffic, conversations, people walking, music playing, etc., there was a small commotion near a sidewalk display that drew my attention. Two women were arguing with an older man, and while I couldn’t make out what he was saying, the women were shouting, “We’re not here for YOU! We aren’t talking to YOU!”
When we got up close, I began to realize what was going on. The women were standing behind a table that had posters hanging off of it, all of which showed a picture of President Obama’s face with a Hitler-like mustache, with a headline that compared him to Hitler. (I later learned that these people were representing Lyndon LaRouche.) And it was clear that the older man had a problem with it, and the message these women were representing.
Let me be clear: I do not consider myself a “fan” of the current President, and generally don’t believe that he (or the overwhelming majority of our other so-called “leaders”) have done a very good job. But to characterize a sitting President as some type of Hitler in a business suit is outrageous… and, I believe, even dangerous.
Why? Not because it makes President Obama look bad, certainly. No, this type of “shock value” comparison doesn’t just tear down the President… it attempts to make a realistic comparison to arguably the most evil man of the 20th century — a man responsible for killing millions of people — somehow plausible. President Obama may not represent your views. He may do things that you absolutely despise, like creating big government, or increasing taxes on the wealthy, or not fixing the economy. But to compare a politician’s failings and political views to a man who instituted genocide on a national scale is inaccurate and irresponsible in the extreme.
And that’s the danger of hyperbole. Given time and repetition, it can make the implausible — comparing Obama to Hitler — somehow, in some small way, plausible. Eventually, it can make the plausible somehow legitimate, and ultimately this can lead to actual acceptance. It not only makes President Obama look bad… it makes comparisons to Hitler — however trivial — acceptable.
Some things in this world defy comparison, both for good and bad. And, in the case of Hitler, he stands (justifiably) alone in his evil, cruelty, and hatred. And, unless the political opponent you’re campaigning against is guilty of genocide or is guilty of institutionalized racial hatred, I think you’re going too far.
The world saw what evil was when they fought and defeated Hitler. Using Hitler as a comparative tool for the waxing and waning of domestic policy ideology makes an evil man like Hitler a little less evil… a little more acceptable… and is therefore, in my opinion, wrong.
My daughters looked a little confused when we walked past that scene on the sidewalk, and other than a comment from me that such a display was disrespectful, we passed on with little further discussion about it. The women didn’t seem to be generating a lot of interest, and most people (from what I could see) did a good job of avoiding eye contact and moved quickly past their display. On the whole, it didn’t look like they were making very much progress.
But I wonder what their next stunt will look like. And I wonder if my kids will, in time, not have any reaction to seeing an American politician depicted as a Nazi. Yes, as Americans, we’re protected by the First Amendment. But that doesn’t absolve us from the responsibility we have to be fair, accurate, and respectful of other Americans’ opinions.
Free speech is a right — and a responsibility.
Until next time… : |