Thursday, May 25, 2006

Column on Hype versus Truth

Hype Versus Truth

Tibor R. Machan

Let?s admit it, most of us indulge in hype. If you?ve ever said, walking
in from a cold outdoors, ?My hands are freezing,? you?ve done hype. Hype
is just exaggeration?hyperbole. It has its point, namely, to call
attention to something you regard important, like your cold hands and to
plea for sympathy, perhaps.

Advertising is often hyperbolic, but then ads aren?t about truth at all
but about promotion. Sure, when they include lies, that?s a flaw but they
include a whole lot more than truth. Gimmickry, for example, which is
quite OK. Any reasonable person would expect that when people try to
promote their wares, services, they are going to hype them up a bit. So
one is on guard, takes a careful look before jumping into a purchase.

Trouble is that much hype is paraded as truth or as information, rather
than as unabashed exaggeration. When politicians lay out their plans,
their promises, they aren?t supposed to but do in fact produce hype. Their
constituents should not depend on these promises so as to evaluate them,
for which one needs to get accurate information, not a bunch of baloney.
But in fact voters get hardly anything but hype and vague hype at that,
lest the candidate may have to answer for breach of promise. (This ignores
the issue of whether these blokes should really be in the business of
making promising to various groups, which of course they shouldn?t.)

Hype, however, appears now to be the norm in many areas. Do those who
champion the better treatment of animals really believe that these beasts
have rights? That they understand our language? That they have moral
sensibilities? I doubt it but saying such things, even writing books
arguing for them, would appear to be the exaggeration that advocates think
is necessary to accomplish their more reasonable, modest objective of
getting animals treated more humanely. If you shout out, ?The chimp is so
like us,? which isn?t true, then perhaps the fact that the chimp is a bit
like us will get noticed. If you demonstrate in front of a fur shop with
placards calling ?Murderers? those who wear fur, then perhaps the idea
that furry creatures might best be treated more kindly will get some
consideration from those who otherwise have different concerns. Just like
that bit about your hands freezing.

The 20th century English philosopher J. L. Austin, a leader of the
movement that was dubbed linguistic analysis and ordinary language
philosophy, made a good deal of how when we say things, we are not always
aiming to tell what is the case, the truth. We are often doing things like
warning, chiding, alerting, promising, threatening and so forth. His book
How to do Things With Words (Oxford, 1962) was very famous for a while for
having made those points and many others about how misguided it is to
believe that all talk is about making assertions only.

Perhaps that is how we should be looking even at the so called
documentaries that are so popular these days, ones that are really not
conveying what is true but urging upon us certain attitudes the makers
wish we shared with them. For example, Michael Moore?s several movies, not
just Fahrenheit 9/11(2004) but, also, Bowling for Columbine (2002) and the
much earlier Roger & Me (1987) fall under this description. (There was,
actually, a counter-documentary produced by some Dick Morris, titled
Fahrenhype 9/11 [2004] that was much more of a documentary than Moore?s
own product.)

Moore?s work is pure hype, with what I assume Moore could defend as a
perfectly justified purposes, namely, to scare people, to get them to hold
his own sentiments and ideas about his various topics. That, however,
isn?t what a documentary is supposed to do. All of Moore?s work?as well as
George Clooney?s recent Oscar nominated docudrama, Good Night and Good
Luck (2005)?commits the informal fallacy of pleading the case, of
presenting only such facts and ideas that support Moore?s position, kind
of what the attorneys do in court, expecting their opposite numbers to
produce the balancing facts and ideas. It?s only that Moore wasn?t in
court but pretended to be telling the whole truth, not just what favored
his side. And that is hype, not truth.

If one recognizes that these efforts aren?t about telling the truth but
about highly partisan championing of a cause, then they can be appreciated
better. Those, in turn, who are interested in the truth about the topics
of these exercises in hyperbole will know to turn elsewhere to seek for it.

No comments: