Friday, November 07, 2003


I bought a product the other day...supposed to whiten my teeth. It's called something like "Tooth White Extreme"

And it got me wondering. What is beyond extreme?

I mean - when they come out with "Son of Tooth White Extreme , what will they call it?

What is beyond extreme? I guess I can propose the only thing truly beyond extreme is "absolute".

I mean it's one thing to be "extremely cold", and another thing altogether to be at "absolute zero". Absolute is just don't get to quibble with absolute, you can't say "super-absolute" or "extra-absolute" or "beyond-absolute" or "mega-absolute" with any true meaning. So - the hyperbolics on Madison avenue have painted themselves into an "extreme corner", which sort of sounds like an acute angle, but is verifiably just one step short of the "absolute angle" which I'm imagining is a straight line.

An angle is a straight line?

That is my point.

The worst boss for whom I ever worked...a tyrant whom I used to refer to in secret as Captain Queeg...once chastised a group of young officers in a staff meeting with the admonition that "words mean things."

We all rolled our eyes and reconfirmed our impression the man was a lunatic. Of course "words mean things"...what could be more obvious. But lately I come to respect that statement for the wisdom that it holds.

It has been 30 years since my geometry class. I have this vague recollection (please correct me on this if I am wrong) that technically there is something called a "straight angle" (is this the ultimate oxymoron?) which indicates an "angle" of 180 degrees.

Or in otherwords...a straight line.

But "angle" to most of us indicates something that starts out in one direction and at some point changes to another direction.

In other words...well...angle. If we mean "line" why not just say "line". It gets rather unwieldy if, in explaining how to draw an "equal" sign one says "OK Class...draw a straight angle, and then just below it, draw another straight angle of equal horizontal duration (that would be "length" to most of us)

I pause now to catch my breath and to return to the point..."words mean things".

I can't believe I am quoting this jerk...but I respect wisdom where I find it and can't help myself.

Which leads me to - well - where to start?

I suppose it leads me here...the posting last week in which I said that I was unimpressed with Representative Corrine Brown's letter to House appropriators in which she stated that “It is an outrage that servicemembers, deployed in the Global War on Terrorism, do not receive adequate personal hygiene products and drinking water.”

I went on to say "If I've learned anything by reading innumerable news stories every day it is to take a good look around when any member of Congress declares something to be "an outrage". From what I've seen usually the only thing outrageous about such stories is the Congressional posturing and playing politics with the issue of the day."

In my mind, you see, Rep. Brown has materially contributed to the erosion of the word "outrage". She is playing politics with words...and overlooking the point that "words mean things".

Or they should.

But we appear to be living in a time in which hyperbole reigns.

I think especially of Sen. Tom Daschle - who can't seem to get through the day without being "shocked" or "wounded" or "appalled".

Those words used to have meaning. But when hyperbolized (if in fact, that is a word) they lose that meaning. They lose the ability to impress. They lose the power to move.

What is next? Extreme shock? Absolute shock?

We're only two steps away from the verbal precipice - the point at which we fall off into complete meaninglessness.

Well - this business of rampant hyperbole gets me to thinking about its other reflections. And I have to conclude that the jerk knew what he was talking about in cautioning us that "words mean things".

Because words carry ammunition in a way. And the ammunition wounds and maims in ways we might not have intended while using those words to make our point.

Ever been in a bar when the music is playing loud and you are trying to communicate with the sweet young thing who seems possibly interested. And to make yourself heard you have to yell...but in that process the band unexpectedly ends the song which results in your statement being broadcast across the entire establishment, something on the order of "...NICEST LEGS I'VE EVER SEEN". That comment at that volume was intended to serve a purpose. But against the suddenly silent backdrop it sets the speaker up for critical judgment by all who hear it.

This is similar to the unintended results of hyperbole and "extreme" rhetoric. It tends to state things in "absolute" terms. It appears to reject discussion or common ground.

Either they are or are not the nicest legs you've ever seen. No room for debate, discussion, compromise, or agreement except on my terms.

trying to grok had a posting last month - a posting on which I did not comment at the time, but one with which I related in spades. That posting is here. The thesis of that posting is "I'm tired of being angry at everyone" and goes on to say "An unfortunate (or fortunate, depending) side effect of this polarization is that has become easy to use these labels as tags."

The "tags" involved may be the labels of liberal or conservative or democrat or republican...but more pointedly may be things like "Bushie" or "Clintonite" or "war monger" or "Berklyite".

In a hyperbolic setting, these terms reduce complex and arguable shadings to primary colors. We take simple "blue" and make it "passionately deeper than deepest briney blue." No room for compromise, discussion or agreement. It's either damn blue or you're all screwed up.

I want to agree with Michelle. I'm tired of being angry at everyone too. But I think probably I'm not truly angry with them...I think I'm angry at the polarization of the discussion.

But then...just as I come to that conclusion, Sarah, our benevolent hostess at trying to grok comes on board with this.
The reason that I have been friends with some of you for so long is because we never talked about things of this nature. I knew better than to bring up politics or the war or my feelings about France with you because I didn't want to upset our friendship.

I don't have access to the exchanges that culminate with statements like this

I can’t always guess what it is that will anger or alienate you; if you wrote a comment about it we could discuss the particulars and try to understand each other better, but I don't really think we'll do that.

But in this post Sarah seems to be on the verge of dismissing her friends, or her friends dismissing her, for having a political point of view.

Perhaps because AFN TV just showed the CMA awards tonight I am reminded of the Dixie Chicks and Barbra Streisand. Some absolutely terrific music there...I mean just cotton pickin' wonderful music. Have you ever heard Barbra sing "What are you doing the rest of your life". To die for. And I don't know if country music ever put together three more talented women than the Dixie Chicks.

But then one of 'em has to go and mouth off in England. Has to go say something on the order of they are "ashamed" to be from Texas, the same state as the President of the United States. And Barbra has to go and set up this web site where she spouts off about such concepts as political "honesty" and "hypocracy". (This from a Jewish woman who recorded a Christmas album...)

Ashamed? Is that true? If folks ask "from where do you come" do you look down at the your feet, and kick up a little earth as you mumble "Texas".


I think what you meant was you don't agree with the President on certain issues.

At least that is what I hope you meant. Because from where I sit it seems a low threshold to get to the "ashamed" condition.

Me...I'm ashamed of times that I've lied or cheated. But I'm not ashamed of a coincidence. Geez...if my tread wear indicators are showing to that extent I need to get off the highway and buy some new tires.

Fact is, I love all these ladies' music. But once they demonstrated an intolerance to my political views, I have trouble listening to their music.

And for a while I thought it was because the Dixie Chicks existed to whatever extent in my life for their music...and that once thay used that stage to express their politics...well, they violated our contract...the one which had me listening for the love of music...period.

Reminds me a bit of John Lennon's faux pas comparing the popularity of the Beatles with that of Jesus. (Another case of hyperbole, to be sure...)

But now I'm revising my assessment of the reaction. I think my reaction to recoil to the Dixie Chicks' statement is almost Newtonian in equal and opposite reaction.

I saw a bumper sticker in the office of a co-worker the other day. It was a Texas flag with these words overprinted: I'm ashamed to be from the same state as the Dixie Chicks.

"Ashamed" used to mean something. It meant something before Natalie Mains used it...but she cheapend it. Because she isn't really ashamed to be from Texas. Seems to me if she were...she wouldn't tell a bunch of Brits she is from approach that gives her a 49 in 50 chance of them mis-guessing where she is from.

Words mean things. Or they did before Tide became "ultra" and tooth whitener became "extreme".

Hyperbole is the polarization of language...and with it society.

I once heard a learned man give an explication of the role of language in society. He posited that language is the facilitator of advancement. Concepts, he said, can not take root and spread unless we have the language to accurately communicate them. Concepts can not advance beyond our linguistic means to communicate them.

The edges of the political parties have hyperbolized the the point that for the sake of general discussion there seems to be only two choices from which to select...this or that.

But in our hearts we know that such polarity isn't really the case.

Tom Daschle is the north pole. Pat Robertson the south pole. But me - don't personally know anyone who lives at the poles. I know I don't.

There is room for discussion...Zell Miller, former Governor and now Senator from Georgia has proven that this week. He has boldly attempted to reclaim the center for the common American. A center in which discussion has impact, hyperbole has no place...a center in which "words mean things."

They use "ultra" and "radical" to sell sodas to 13 year olds. As adults, we should be capable of more precise use of the language.

As a career logistician in the US Army I studied and knew much about what the Army calls Lines of Communications (LOCs) LOCs are the paths by which one echelon of the Army reaches out and feeds the another that which it requires.

Language aka "communication" is the medium by which we feed one another, contact one another...not isolate one from another.

In my opinion trying to grok, and many more among us are victims of the shortcut of hyperbole...the polarization of ideas into simplistic camp A or camp B when in fact ideas exist on a spectrum.

I once thought of dictionaries as the language police. The enforcers of an absolute linguistic standard. But in my own lifetime I've seen that dictionaries have transformed the "acceptable" pronunciation of the word "often" from simply "OF-FEN" now to include "OFF-TEN"

Dictionaries will not protect us from the devolution of speach and communication. That job is up to people...dictionaries only reflect popular usage.

There is a wealth of lingustic spectrum between black and white, between left and right, north and south.

Would that we have the discipline and good sense to protect that spectrum before it disappears.

Would that we have the intelligence to accurately portray the subtlties of our ideas over their presentation in mere black/white terms.

Would that we could protect our friendships and stop being angry all the time.

What say you?

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