Hyperbole is going to kill us all
On overheated rhetoric, war crimes, and finding doctors in rural places
The temptation to resort to hyperbolic language is strong in the contemporary political climate. We are awash in breathless warnings of climate catastrophe and democracy on the brink, and threats of a stock market crash and World War 3. None of this is made better by the presence of candidates and even elected officials who resort to repugnant claims about others because they have so little to offer of their own.
■ But the temptation to engage in that rhetorical escalation has to be resisted, or else hyperbole is going to kill us all.
■ And that includes the language from the highest of offices. Just because one President resorted to more than 30,000 lies in four years doesn't mean things are made better by his successor resorting to overstatement, even of matters more grounded in fact.
■ Words matter. Even today, Americans still cherish the plain language of Abraham Lincoln and the directness of the Declaration of Independence, because words used carefully can shape thoughts and decisions for generations to come.
■ In attempting to make a case for health-care coverage, the President has pronounced, "In America, health care should be a right -- not a privilege." No sane or reasonable person could quibble with a close variation on that argument: That health care is a universal need. Everyone knows that. But to call something a "right" is different.
■ Americans subscribe to a belief that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are fundamental rights. That's why there is almost universal consensus in America that Russia is wrong to invade Ukraine, and that America is right to impose consequences against the aggressor for committing and continuing the invasion.
■ We may struggle to delineate between war crimes and genocide, but we know that the crimes committed by Russian troops against civilians in Bucha and elsewhere are fundamentally, inescapably wrong and utterly without defense or excuse. Fundamental human rights are incontestable.
■ Fundamental human rights, though, are virtually always those things which one person cannot rightly be denied by the powerful: The right to speak one's mind, the right to go about life unmolested by authorities, the right simply to live without fear of summary execution. These are things that do not respond to the laws of supply and demand.
■ Health care, like other fundamental needs (including food, clothing, shelter, and safe drinking water), is unfortunately still subject to those laws of resource limitations. It does not make it easier to provide those things simply by declaring them "rights". Calling them what they are -- universal needs -- acknowledges at that they are things nobody can do without, but reserves the language of "rights" for those things that everyone possesses by right of birth as a human being. There is no supply curve on your claim to the pursuit of happiness, but there are costs that apply to those things we consume.
■ It may seem pedantic to call out the difference between rights and needs, but the distinction is important, and so is the application of care in the use of the language. If we speak of universal needs, then we are obligated to have the more difficult discussions about who pays, how much they pay, who ensures an adequate supply, and how we must intervene to fix the gaps.
■ Calling something a "right" isn't a magic incantation that makes the good or service appear out of thin air. A person cannot be arbitrarily deprived of their right to vote -- but in some places, there simply aren't any doctors, and no amount of calling access to one a "right" will produce an MD on the spot.
■ More deeply, though, it matters that we use the language carefully and hold others accountable to do the same, even when we agree with the things they want. Lots of things -- including the temptations of social media -- encourage people to resort to overheated rhetoric and linguistic overextensions. Too many of those, compounded upon one another, deprives us of the ability to have real discussions about matters in the public interest. Hyperbole isn't really going to kill us all, but it does choke out the debates a democratic society needs to have.