Hyperbole (noun): Exaggerated statements or claims not meant to be taken literally.
The above is the dictionary definition of something I will employ for rhetorical effect in order to make a point in today’s column. It will require a sense of humor on your part, Faithful Reader. But you’ve got a good sense of humor, right? Sure, of course you do. After all, you read this column.
If there’s one thing that I’ve noticed since I started really paying attention to politics when I was around 20 years old, it’s this: In political discourse, many people who would otherwise care about truth if any other subject were being discussed will cease to do so if the truth does not accord with the articles of their political faith. Now, before you say to yourself, “you’re right, Caleb! Those godless Democrats/greedy Republicans don’t care a lick about the truth! Good thing that I’m a selfless Democrat/God-fearing Republican, so all I care about is the truth,” I’m going to say this:
My statement applies to people of every conceivable political persuasion, Republican, Democrat, social democrat, Libertarian, communitarian, socialist, crypto-fascist, not-so-crypto-fascist, anarcho-primitivist, monarchist, any “an” or “ist” ya got. People in your political tribe do it. Heck, you’ve probably done it a time or two. I’ll own up to doing it myself sometimes. So, please dispense with the notion that I’m just talking about everyone who isn’t like you, because I’m talking about your people too, whoever they are.
Make a statement that is and should be incredibly uncontroversial and obviously true outside of apolitical context and most people will go along with it. However, once that statement has been given some kind of political connotation, way, way, way too many folks will throw their regard for the truth right out the nearest window if what is said goes against their political orthodoxy. It will happen twice as fast as a jackrabbit on a date, which is pretty fast to begin with.
To illustrate my point, I’m going to use an over the top example. Here’s where the hyperbole comes in.
“You’re supposed to stop when the light is red and go when the light is green.”
Easy enough, right?
But if that statement was somehow made political (I don’t know how it could be, but I’m using it to make a point) here’s a response I can imagine hearing from a political debater on the internet, or maybe a professional pundit on a cable news network:
“Well, hold on now. Red is the color of communism and green is the color of capitalism. I’m not going to be told what to do by any commies, so I’m going to go when the light is red too!”
And then someone gets t-boned in an intersection and, when they get out of the hospital, records an earnest, spirited video about how their constitutional rights were violated by communism when they ran a red light and posts it on YouTube. That video goes viral, accumulating 7.3 million views in six hours and sparking vigorous, occasionally disturbing debate in the comment section. It is picked up by Daily Kos, the Daily Wire, and then CNN, where it is discussed further by people who are paid to do so.
Yes, that was very much hyperbole, but it was to make a point. And you see my point, right?
It my personal belief that many people, when it comes to politics, do not care about truth. At least, not for its own sake. They say they do, but their words often betray them. For such people, the truth is only useful insofar as it is politically expedient. If the truth does not serve their political ends, it is quickly discarded. Indeed, it could be argued that for such people, the truth ceases to be the truth when it defies their political expectations. This is absurd, of course. But politics often makes people absurd.
Nowhere does this play out more than where people get their news. The de facto purpose of much media, when it comes to politics, is to tell people what they want to hear. And why is that? Because many people, if they are not told what they want to hear, will go and get their news elsewhere. It doesn’t matter if an outlet is reporting what is true, but only that that outlet reports what a particular group of consumers wants to be true. If the market demands a lie, that is, if enough people demand to be lied to, the market will supply that lie to those who demand it.
That’s Economics 101.
And in my experience, nowhere do people resolutely demand to be lied to more than in politics. Not because they actually want to be lied to, but because they want to be told what they want to hear, whether it’s true or not. Because their only criterion for truth is whether or not they already believe something to be so.
The market has created media outlets to tell consumers of both political news and non-political news that is made so exactly what they want to hear, whether it is true or not. Because that is what many of We The People demand.
Healthy political discourse is vital to the survival of a democratic society. And political discourse demands a regard for the truth, for the truth’s sake, in order to be healthy.
And here we are.
Caleb Baumgardner is a local attorney. He can be reached at [email protected]