Lionel Shriver

No exaggeration: Hyperbole makes words worthless

8 June 2019

9:00 AM

8 June 2019

9:00 AM

Saturday night, a guest commentator on Sky News sputtered that Donald Trump has ‘normalised white supremacy’. Once the American President has floated off to the horizon after his three-day visit to the UK as an inflatable media punching bag, we will doubtless have been subjected to much further denunciation of this diabolical, fiendish, authoritarian, hate-filled, lying, misogynistic, crass, criminal, moronic, stupid … sorry, that’s a bit too close to ‘moronic’… then, you know, totally crummy leader who is also… also… fat! Sadiq Khan made a brave superlative play in labelling Trump a ‘fascist’. Now, that one’s hard to top  — which won’t have stopped fellow detractors from trying.

Welcome to the world of impotent hyperbole. That dig about white supremacy is a good example of contemporary word inflation, in some ways worse than what’s happened to grades. (The fetishistic lefty resort to normalise deserves parsing as well: the verb seems to decode ‘Maybe it’s not strictly illegal yet but we don’t like it, so it should be illegal’.) Now that white supremacist no longer refers specifically to Anglo-Saxons who proudly believe their race is superior, the term means nothing. Granted, Trump may or may not have obstructed justice and he’s hardly Mr Protocol, but Khan has now used up fascist. So what will London’s mayor call the President were Trump actually to send in troops to shut down CNN? ‘Injudicious’?

The self-defeating nature of rhetorical overkill was on display for decades in Northern Ireland, where politicians ritually fell over themselves to condemn the culprits behind atrocities as, say, ‘heartless, inhuman animals who have sunk to new depths of depravity and unspeakable wickedness…’. While party leaders’ thesauruses grew rifled and grey from paging for fresh synonyms, for the audience this escalating invective induced a funny linguistic neuropathy. The pols would have been more affecting had they characterised yet another bombing as ‘unfortunate’.

As for Trump, the American left has already thrown Roget’s at the guy — the hardback, unabridged — and look at how much good it’s done. Trump is still President, we’re approaching another election and all the punchy pejoratives are exhausted already. ‘Fascist’? Sadiq, the Democrats impoverished fascist before the Donald was even inaugurated.

Brexit has also been a magnet for the lexicon of hysteria. At the weekend, Elton John announced that Brexit has made him ashamed of his country. He declared: ‘I am a European. I am not a stupid, colonial, imperialist English idiot.’ (Note that English here is deployed as one more insult.) It’s news to me that Dominic Raab and Boris Johnson are scheming to send the British army on 31 October to retake Kenya.

Notoriously, too, David Lammy deplored members of the pro-Brexit ERG as akin to Nazis and proponents of apartheid. When Andrew Marr invited the MP to moderate his comparisons, he declared instead that the parallels were ‘not strong enough’. I’m curious just how Lammy plans to heighten the opprobrium.

See, rhetorical overkill blows up in your face. Hyperbole depletes your linguistic arsenal, and oratorical crying wolf destroys your credibility. Lammy simply sounded childish. The exaggeration bounced harmlessly off the ERG, while betraying the Labour MP as having no sense of proportion. Language inflation has the same effect as the monetary kind: your words grow rapidly worthless.

Speaking of Lammy and growing rapidly worthless: last month’s Intelligence Squared debate in Westminster was one of my weirder events in recent times. The panel was ostensibly discussing the proposition ‘Identity politics is tearing society apart’. I kicked off with ten minutes for the affirmative, during which I defined what I understood identity politics to mean: an insistence on interpreting history, the arts and the dynamics of the present entirely in terms of unequal power relationships between groups. I contested the very definition of ‘identity’ that the movement embraces. For me, knowing who we are means transcending, rather than clinging to, the social and biological categories into which we were helplessly born. Pretty much what you’d expect, right?

What I didn’t expect was to be strangely undermined by my own side. I’m a big fan of Trevor Phillips, a sharp, observant broadcaster whose documentaries on political correctness and British Muslim values have been especially courageous. I felt fortunate to have him as second affirmative. But when he concluded, I wasn’t sure I’d heard right. He’d rounded on the point that identity politics is indeed tearing society apart, but that’s a grand thing, because society needs to be torn apart, the better to rebuild it afresh from the ground up. Something of a back door to our side of the argument, to say the least — and at 65 the gentlemanly OBE makes for an unlikely burn-the-whole-joint-down revolutionary firebrand.

In opposition, a Guardian journalist diligently expounded on the merits of researching the effects of government policy on various demographic subsets — fair enough, but rather off-point. Then our friend David Lammy (for whom I must also be a pro-apartheid Nazi) delivered a rousing civil rights sermon, part Mandela, part Martin Luther King. Hence in the final wrap-up, I submitted dolefully: ‘If I’d realised that we were really going to be debating the proposition “Racism and sexism are bad”, I might have declined this invitation.’

Somehow the cherry on this melting sundae — throughout which we had signally failed to debate anything to do with identity politics, but had thrown in plenty of Brexit — was being approached afterwards by a member of the audience (black, if that matters, and alas, maybe it does) to please explain my closing remark. I spelled out that racism and sexism being bad is settled, isn’t it? So debating that proposition is a waste of time. She continued to look belligerently uncomprehending. I blithered on at greater length. There’s nothing more disheartening than having to tortuously explain a remark whose meaning should have been self-evident, when the remark itself was about not wishing to discuss the self-evident.

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