Hyperbole: A tool of jest, not of anger

by Peter Watts

Hyperbole is a rhetorical weapon best used with tongue-in-cheek, and that’s a public speaking lesson Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana appears to have missed.

During yesterday’s press-pack of the nation’s governors, Jindal broke free from the agreed statement in order to launch an outburst all of his own when he referred to President Obama’s plan to raise the federal minimum wage as “waving a white flag”.

Connecticut governor Dannel Malloy briskly intervened, taking the microphone and mocking Jindal’s comments. Other governors concurred. Jindal meanwhile, choosing not to heed the old guidance to quit digging when you’re already in a hole, could be heard continuing his rant off-camera.

So what went wrong? From the point of view of public speaking, Jindal committed a basic error involving the technique of hyperbole, and where not to use it!

Hyperbole is a well known tool of speech. You’ll have used it yourself. How about the last time you heaved a fully packed suitcase into the trunk of a car and muttered “Wow, this thing weighs a ton!” Well, it didn’t weigh a ton, and if it actually had then you wouldn’t have been able to lift it in the first place!

How about when approaching a deliciously laden buffet table. Who amongst us hasn’t occasionally said to a friend “I’m starving! I could eat a horse.” Again, you’re neither starving nor expressing serious intent to scoff down an entire equine. Your friend however, will smile along with you because we all understand the tongue-in-cheek mechanics of hyperbole. It’s a far-out exaggeration performed in a spirit of jest.

Of all the rhetorical forms, hyperbole is one that we use every day, and as a result we all have a fairly good idea about how it works. This is why Bobby Jindal sounded just a little bit crazy when he started on about white flags.

A white flag indicates abject surrender, which is far from the current state of debate. His white flag reference is therefore hyperbole being used in anger and not in jest. It’s the rhetorical equivalent of going onto a shooting range with one of those little toy pistols that drops a flimsy flag saying “BANG!”. Not only is it completely the wrong tool for the job but it sounds downright childish, and this is exactly what it was.

Hyperbole used in anger is the child’s pose of rhetoric: “If you don’t do what I want, then I’ll never ever speak to you again!” Hyperbole circa second grade.

It’s no surprise therefore that Governor Malloy responded with a parent-to-child response, saying to Jindal’s face that his statement was “the most insane comment” he had ever heard.

Hyperbole has a valid role in debate, but only used in jest, and never in a tantrum.

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