Hyperbole and Straw Men

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We, as Americans, cherish the freedom and right to disagree—which we do, often deeply about important issues that need resolution. But polarization undermines that freedom by tightening prejudices rather than opening thought, thus diminishing the chances for finding resolutions and moving forward.  So while polarization may feel like a righteous champion of freedom and right, it is in fact just the opposite—a stick jammed in the spokes of the democratic discourse of freedom. Here are some of the common ways it does it:

  1. SEDUCES with loaded, heated language and childish name-calling that appeals more to emotion that reason.
  2. BLINKERS by using cherry-picked facts, and ignoring or mocking opposing arguments and evidence rather than actually addressing them.
  3. TRIVIALIZES by focusing on “straw-man” issues whose value in re-enforcing biases is clearly greater than their substance.
  4. BULLIES by making you feel like a dupe or a traitor if you even listen to the other side.
  5. FLATTERS with language and a tone that makes you feel like an insider, who, of course, agrees with them because you “get it” … just like they do.
  6. FRIGHTENS by portraying the other side as not just wrong, but a dangerous, evil enemy, replete with wicked hidden agendas.
  7. “CLANS,” that is, plays the “us vs. them” identity politics game of associating the other view with groups or people (implicitly) “inferior” to “us.”
  8. “TRIBES” by using the knowing winks and nods of sarcasm, coded language, words in quotes (suggesting they’re misleading) and innuendo which you, as a member of the tribe, of course, will understand without explanation or justification.

This weekthe polarizing technique of accusing the other side of hypocrisy and lying, rather than arguing against the substance of what they want to accomplish seemed to dominate. And why not? It’s a great technique for rousing emotions rather than illuminating the mind because it effectively stops the conversation before it begins: We can’t even discuss it because they’re so dishonest and disingenuous.  Plus it’s so easy…and fun! You don’t have to address the other side’s points. You just have to frame them in your picture of contempt. No wonder politics seem so ugly and empty these days.

When reading these examples, check the above list and ask yourself: regardless of whether you agree or disagree, is this really advancing an intelligent resolution through the persuasive, rational arguments of advocacy…or simply fueling the fire of conflict through the divisive, emotional manipulations of polarization?

Here are just a few of the blue and red polarizing headlines from the past week.

More to explore

Recapping the Month: Ezra Klein, The Weave Project and more

Ciaran O’Connor and John Wood, Jr. recap their recent journeys across the country discussing depolarization and reconciliation, Ciaran’s interview with Ezra Klein, the values that bind Americans and John’s feelings on Memorial Day.

2 thoughts on “Hyperbole and Straw Men”

  1. Erica Etelson

    Re: this week’s polarizing headlines, the only ones I’m not sure I agree on are “Republican tax overhaul still a flop…” and “Republicans are lying about what’s in Green New Deal.” The first one seems accurate — is it the word flop that sounds a little too gotcha? The second one — yes, the word “lying” can be inflammatory but, at the same time, when I read the article it does sound like Republicans are saying things that are not true about the GND in order to make it look absurd. I also think the “What liberals forgot” headline is okay even though I disagree with the content of the article.

  2. Like Erica, I think the tax overhaul headline leans toward fact. However, without reading the content, all of the rest (red and blue) are semantic mud pies. When I review the somewhat fringe sites where these headlines come from, I am not surprised (although CNN and Fox News both have some doozies on any given day, as well.)

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