The Boy Who Cried Mandate: The Perils of Exaggerating Reality

On Mondays we have staff calls. We all have hectic schedules, so it's important we set aside some time each week to keep each other abreast of everything that's happening with ongoing and upcoming projects. Also, there is lunch.

Everyone has suggestions, but as Management, I'll often narrow it down to the two most popular choices. If seven of the thirteen of us opt for Thai, and the other six would rather try that new barbecue place, unfortunately, some tough choices must be made. "A close call," I might say, "but we'll try to do the barbecue place next week."

What I would never do is announce, "Everyone! There is a clear mandate for Thai food! Thai has routed barbecue in this epic clash! The people have spoken, and they have angrily rejected the possibility of barbecue, telling it to go back to the pit from whence it came!"

And yet this is basically what happens every election cycle. Nowhere but in politics does capturing a simple majority of votes cast onto a field of two qualify as a "mandate." In 2008, 47% of the population voted against Barack Obama. In 2010, about 48% of Americans voted against Republican candidates. In each case, a swing of 4% of the population would have resulted in the opposite overall outcome. A mandate? Seriously?

Why does "descriptor inflation" happen? And how does this devaluation of linguistic currency impact us all?

The media does it because it generates eyeballs.

"This was a whooping, wouldn't you say, fellas?"
"Oh, more than a whooping, John, it was a beat-down!"
"John, I agree with Skip! This was just a massacre for the Dems!"
"Completely agree! It was a Day of Reckoning for anyone who was a friend of the President!"

Doesn't sound all that made up, does it? It probably could have happened. What would it take for you to think I was stretching the limits of today's exaggerated commentary? What if I tried the following?

"This is a lot like 1812, when the New Madrid earthquake was so devastating that it made the Mississippi River run backwards. This was a river reversal last night."

If only I had made that up. Mike Huckabee actually said that on Fox News.

In fact, it's hard to come up with a sentence so extreme you wouldn't believe it was actually uttered on national TV. Here's the best I could do:

"Well, John, what I think happened, was the Republicans took a shovel and decapitated the Democrats with it, and then, via a large truck, or maybe steamroller, ran over the heads and squashed them into a kind of Democrat paste, and that is what the American people demanded!"

Now, I'm not the Language Police. But I do analyze language's effects on audiences. And the impact is bad. Bad for the media. Bad for the politicians. Bad for society.

Over time, there's a cost to this descriptor inflation:

  • The media has become the boy who cried wolf. Every cat in a tree is portrayed as the last vestige of an endangered species clinging to life in the face of human selfishness.
  • Politicians suffer from heightened expectations and the kind of backlash we just witnessed in the 2010 midterms. When politicians portray a close race as a mandate for change and then can't deliver, a small shift in voting behavior completely changes the political dynamics in a matter of one election cycle.
  • And for society, descriptor inflation, makes us less able to use nuance when describing things, and less likely to believe others when they speak. Try to count the number of times you've told someone that something was the "Best ____ Ever" or "absolutely horrible" lately. I know you didn't mean it that way. You were just saying. But now think of how many times people have said similar things to you recently. Did such strong language really make you take notice? Did it even make a dent?

If the most emphatic language we have becomes the norm, becomes the cost of entry into a conversation, then we lose the ability to use language to differentiate with any kind of subtlety. We build up a tolerance for superlatives. What's left? Getting louder for more emphasis? Kicking each other in the groin?

So, to encourage myself, my staff, and anyone reading this to speak in absolutes only when absolutely necessary, I'd like to announce an informal contest for Most Extreme Election Analysis Sentence.

We'll have two categories: non-fiction and fiction. In the comments section below, post your entries for the most extreme sentences actually typed or uttered by analysts (typed or uttered seriously - sarcasm doesn't count) and the most extreme sentences you can invent (keep them free of any objectionable material, though). Be sure to state which category you're entering, and include a link to the original source if you can. Winners will be announced November 23rd on my web site, www.languageoftrust.com, and will each receive a free copy of my recent book, The Language of Trust: Selling Ideas in a World of Skeptics.

I hope it will be a cause of a few moments of moderate enjoyment.

Follow Michael Maslansky on Twitter @m_mas.

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