Is an exaggeration a lie? YES, say some. It is an untruth and a deception. It misinforms the listener and may lead him or her into a relationship with another that is harmful because it misrepresents the competency or reliability of the one formulating the exaggeration. As a result, the listener may place his/her trust in a speaker based on misinformation about the truthfulness of a remark that is exaggerated. And misplaced trust may result in injury or damage to the hearer, usually financial in nature, if the listener invests money in a program that has been misrepresented, or, may sour a listener on personal exchanges across the board, making many of them suspect and unreliable.
But others say No. An exaggeration is not a lie, at least not necessarily so. It is often based upon a truth, which may be somewhat extenuated. Especially when it comes from someone who is well known for embellishing the facts, an exaggeration often lends, not deceit, but interest and fascination to a person’s remarks, and adds a certain attractiveness to what may otherwise be a rather dull or unimpressive conversation. A party is often enhanced by the presence of a guest skilled in the art of exaggeration, which may provide a certain glow or warmth of fellowship among party-goers, thereby cementing human relationships.
The practice of exaggeration is not a modern development. The well-known incident of “chicken little” has an ancient pedigree, describing the chicken on whose head a pebble or drop of water falls, leading the chick to exclaim loudly and clearly that “the sky is falling”, to everyone’s dismay. Now this is a classical example of an exaggeration, for the sky was obviously not falling. No harm was done, though possibly the heart rate of some bystanders increased and an element of fear may have raced through them. But was it a lie, or a mischief-maker?
And, in more recent times, October 30, 1938, to be exact, the radio announcer Orson Welles made his impressive announcement over the radio air-waves that Martians were invading our planet in droves, intent upon subduing us. Given his acting and rhetorical skills, Welles adroitly interrupted the scheduled newscast with this stunning piece of information, leaving at least some of his listeners dumb-founded and even frightened. A bit of an exaggeration, obvious to some, but apparently not obvious enough to others. Was this a lie?
And perhaps some of us have been admonished against any youthful playfulness, or perhaps foolishness, or possibly malevolence, leading us to yell out FIRE, FIRE! in a crowded theater, where people will possibly react to this in a stampede or at least a paralyzing fright. Can this be dismissed as a harmless exaggeration, obviously untrue and so just a prank?
So what is the difference, if any, between a lie and an exaggeration? Is it fundamentally a distortion of the truth, whether it misleads others or not, or is it simply an enhancement of the facts to make them more interesting to the listeners around us? In this latter alternative, it might actually be a welcome boost to a party that is beginning to grow dull and boring.
Yet, recent incidents involving prominent citizens of our country have aroused indignation and reprehension of the perpetrators of exaggeration, such as that of Brian Williams, the lead announcer of NBC evening news, who apparently enhanced his role in covering the news associated with our military engagement in Iraq. This breach of reportorial ethics was considered quite damaging to the trust listeners place in the accuracy and truthfulness of the newscasting profession. And there have been other recent incidents of prominent military personnel and government officials engaging in self-enhancing comments, often about their military exploits, and this too has been regarded as injurious to the qualities of trustworthiness and competence expected of people occupying significant public positions.
A traditional axiom in commercial transactions between merchants and customers, interested in purchasing an item from the merchant, is: “caveat emptor”, a Latin phrase meaning: “let the buyer take care/be on guard”. Obviously a merchant wants to enhance the product he or she is selling so as to complete a sale. But it is also obvious, at least to an experienced customer, that he/she should be “on guard”, noting any exaggerations made by the merchant on behalf of the product. Is there anything harmful taking place in an exchange of this kind, or is it simply an exaggeration that both parties recognize and deal with? In other words, an acceptable practice. But nonetheless, a warning, such as Jesus pronounced in the gospels: “Be shrewd as serpents and simple as doves” (Mt 10.16), helps to distinguish fact from fiction, or truth from exaggeration.