America’s Hyperbole Problem


Why our culture has become so exhausting.

Ours has become a culture of hyperbole. Nothing characterizes American social interaction, mediated through politics and social media, more than our need to assure ourselves, and broadcast to others, that whatever is happening now — whatever currently grasps our unexamined attention — is the most, greatest, acutest of whatever has ever been.

Everything — sexism, racism, political differences, economic differences — is a war. A war on women. A war on blacks. A war on the poor or on the elderly or on immigrants or on Christmas. We are all soldiers for equality, religion, ideology. We engage not in debate, but in skirmishes. We face not interlocutors, but enemy combatants.

This war footing turns our interactions toxic and destructive. Twitter shame mobbing, or counter protesting, or who we allow to speak on our campuses, accomplishes little of value but causes great harm, because we’re fighting the good fight, no matter the costs and no matter the stakes — which are, let’s face it, typically enormously low.

We do this because it’s fun. Because it makes us feel like important players in battles of significance, instead of the playacting trolls we so frequently actually are. None of it matters, except insofar as we’ve opted to destroy livelihoods or lives or just faces when we thrill in punching instead parley. But we can’t admit we do it for fun, because that would be admitting we’re not at war, not really, but instead seek only the rush of pretending to be foot soldiers in whatever Battle for the Fate of Civilization strikes our fancy at the soon-to-be-forgotten moment.

Without the belief in culture war, we’d burn out. Adrenaline takes its toll. With the belief in culture war, we keep up this destructive and deranged momentum through an irrational sense of moral urgency. “This matters,” we tell ourselves and signal to our tribes. “We can’t stop now, lest we capitulate to them.”

As one side stumbles drunkenly into this process, the other ratchets up its hyperbole engines in response, and the cycle accelerates, tearing through decency and respect and social bonds. Nobody wants to be the one who calls a halt, who halts themselves, for the war of the moment must be won, and besides, it’s all so gratifying and fun.

Except it’s not. Not at all. It’s degrading and the fun is false, like the rush of skydiving without a parachute. What’s needed is a culture-wide calming down, a letting out of breath. What’s needed is an understanding that things aren’t as dire or urgent or aggressively bad or dangerous as we’ve worked ourselves up to believe.

Can we do that? I don’t know. But you can. You can step away from your hyperbolic guns and find something better to do.

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