It could never be said that the recently unalive boxing legend Muhammad Ali ever shied away from hyperbole. Anyone who made Ali-esque claims about themselves today would likely be dismissed out of hand as a massive wanker. But Ali’s oft-quoted 1963 proclamation “I am the greatest” was, at least, contextually correct, given he’d just become the youngest boxer in the history of the so-called sport to steal the heavyweight crown from the reigning champion.
(At the time Ali also claimed he was “the prettiest thing that ever lived”—the accuracy of this claim, contextually or otherwise, remains open to debate).
These days, virtually everything is exaggerated as being the greatest to one extent or another. From the obvious sensationalist and leading questions of journalists, to TV advertising and the typically over-the-top expressiveness of social media, it’s no exaggeration to say that hyperbole has hijacked so many aspects of language in the 21st century.
If it’s not the most exciting or the most exclusive, then it’s the largest, the first, the earliest, the biggest or best, the loudest or quietest, the least or the most—whatever the claim to fame, today’s language invariably takes it to an extreme.
It might be argued that this is the best way (or maybe the only way) to capture attention amid the ceaseless din of the 24 hour news cycle and the ever-decreasing attention span of the social media generation. But all it ultimately does is dilute the message—or, specifically, dilute the power of the pronouns and superlatives that are so constantly over-used.
Example #1: the popular turn of phrase “best. <insert subject here>. EVER”. Young folk and the social media set flock to this one like lambs to the slaughter. They apply it to just about any random situation they can think of, however run-of-the-mill it may be and however likely it is to be imminently bettered. The result is that any punch such statements might pack is lost. From over-use, as so often the case, “best. <subject>. EVER>” has become as nuanced as the ubiquitous “lol”—and we all know how often “lol” is the result of an actual laugh-out-loud.
Example #2: Mazda’s obsession with the “First-Ever” concept. It extends beyond the headlines into the copy: “First-Ever Mazda CX-3 comes in front or all-wheel drive”, it announces, as if the name of the car is actually “First-Ever Mazda CX-3”. I have an equal love of language and all things automotive, so the Mazda CX-3 marketing always annoys me. Yes, it was a brand new model in the range and had never existed before, but a decade ago the occasional “all-new” reference would’ve cut it, so what’s changed? The ongoing use of the “First-Ever” moniker is all the more inexplicable, given the audience to whom such hyperbole is clearly aimed—arguably CX-3’s target demographic—is probably the least likely to give a toss about the CX-3’s “First-Ever” status.
Example #3: our TV networks claim their programs are “must-see” when promoting finales or outcomes that “everyone’s been waiting for”. Then they use “Australia” as a collective noun to address the audience, as if all 24,151,300 of us are on the edge of our seats, in breathless anticipation of the much-hyped televisual feast. This despite the fact that even our highest-rated programs in any given year amass probable audience sizes of less than 10% of the total population.
Sadly for those of us who form the majority of the world’s population that doesn’t harbour extremist views on any topic, there’s been an increasing incidence of freaks and nutjobs having major psychological meltdowns, then heading out into the streets to perpetrate truly horribly crimes. Thanks almost entirely to September 11 and everything that came after, there’s now a tendency to respond and react to everything as if it’s “terrorism” or an act of “terror”.
But in this age of bigging everything up, we seem to have forgotten that the proportion of the general populace made up by those freaks and nutjobs—many of whom are nothing more than unoriginal copycats, or just waiting for some twisted inspiration—is actually pretty tiny.
When a Sydney man recently set his car alight while he was still inside it, before it rolled—no, it wasn’t driven, much less rammed—down a driveway and into the door of a suburban police station car park, the immediate response was to address it as a possible act of terrorism. Turns out it was just some guy having a fairly substantial meltdown in response to a family situation.
The recent mass-shooting in Munich was immediately announced as a “terrorist attack”, but it really wasn’t one. And when news of the stabbing deaths of 19 people in Japan first started to filter out, there were initial suggestions that it too could’ve been a terror incident.
Terrible? Yes. Terror, in the tradition sense of the word? There’s no doubt that if any of those poor devils actually registered what was happening, terror is very possibly what they felt.
But terrible and terrorism are two very different things.
Were all these incidents terrible? Absolutely they were. Were all these incidents terrifying for those directly involved? No doubt. Are they always acts of terror, terrorism or terrorism-related, perpetrated by terrorists? In a word, no.
Here’s something to consider: in the United States, between 1970-2014, more than 3,500 people were killed as a result of terrorist activity (with nearly 3,000 of those lost on September 11 alone). But in 2015, 13,000 people were killed in the United States by a gun, in either a homicide, an unintentional shooting, or a murder/suicide. That’s terrible vs terrorism right there! They’re so not the same things.
Every day in Australia, someone’s attacked, physically assaulted, stabbed or shot—in their homes, at their workplaces, in schools, or in the street. ‘Anger-management’ and ‘road rage’ are terms we toss about as if they’ve always existed but, in reality, it seems to be getting worse. Domestic violence has more focus now than ever before. Radical steps have been taken to curb alcohol and drug-related violence. Violence is all around us—now more so than ever. But a terrorist attack is more than just a loud noise and some violence. And that’s not just semantics.
Indeed, in direct response to the burning car incident, but broadly addressing all such incidents, our Attorney-General encouraged Australians—and chiefly, it must to be assumed, the media—not to think of or describe every single violent act that occurs in our communities as possible terrorist attacks. Said the A-G, “Not every act of violence, even a pre-meditated or carefully planned act of violence, is an act of terrorism”.
And herein lies the biggest issue: all at once, we’ve become both desensitized and overly sensitive to the notion of terrorism, to the point where virtually every time there’s an unexpected loud noise, wildly varying and largely unverified “eyewitness accounts” and social media coverage lead to almost immediate announcements of a terrorist attack.
The lines between the acts of bona-fide terrorists and those of your average certifiable nutter have certainly blurred in recent years. But let’s ask ourselves why everyone’s so hung-up about privacy and metadata and which aspects of their lives are being tracked when our law enforcement, with all that tracking ability allegedly at its fingertips, seems no more able today than it would’ve been a decade ago to intercept, or even predict, the current tide of increasing violence.
“Be alert, not alarmed”, the TV ads used to tell us. At the same time they were playing, which was about a year after 9/11, people I worked with were looking out the tenth-floor windows of our office building, convinced that they’d see a plane flying straight at us at any moment—just because it was the first anniversary. The alert-not-alarmed message clearly failed from the outset.
The world has seemingly become over-populated by screwballs with some very scary tendencies. At the same time, the behaviour of the rest of the population indicated a far greater demand for news and information than could adequately be supplied. But now that it can be, the media can’t get enough of click-bait catchphrases like “one punch” and “lone wolf” and has an obsessive reliance on reporting exaggerated versions of every single thing that happens, just to keep people interested, because—and here’s the greatest irony—the population who indicated that ever-increasing demand for an unceasing supply of news and information has proven itself incapable of concentrating for long enough to actually take most of it in.
The hyperbole shouts the loudest and who wants to read dull, factually correct news anyway?
Just as the question remains of whether a tree that falls in the forest, unheard and unseen, makes any sound or even fell at all, so, too, does the question of whether a news item about something terrible, which isn’t embellished or exaggerated by a journalist in any way, is any more or less newsworthy. The answer, of course, is a categorical ‘no’. News is news. If it happens and it was terrible, then it’s terrible enough. It doesn’t need to be made to sound any more terrible.
We—the population at large—certainly don’t need any more terrorist attacks in the world than there already are. Nor should we have allowed ourselves to get to a place where we automatically assume that every terrible thing that happens is one.
It must surely be obvious that, more often than not, terrible ≠ terrorism.