The power of understatement in the age of hyperbole

In 2016, President Obama visited the city of Hiroshima, a highly symbolic gesture: a Democratic president visiting the site where, to end WWII, another Democratic president – Harry Truman – had ordered the dropping of the atomic bomb.

In recognition of that moment, Poynter published my essay analyzing the book “Hiroshima” by John Hersey. That book is still recognized as one of the most important non-fiction works of the 20th century.

Originally published by the New Yorker, the text took up an entire issue of the magazine. Republished as a thin paperback, it became a staple of high school and college English classes for the rest of the century.

If there is one key lesson in my analysis, it is the power of understatement. The Greek word for it is litotes, the opposite of hyperbole. How do you begin to write about one of the most terrifying and momentous events in human history? The answer is “softly” or “slowly.”

With overstatement – as often demonstrated in the tweets of President Trump – attention goes to the speaker or writer. With understatement, you barely notice the writer. The crafty reporter is not dancing in front of the camera. Instead, the writing, in the good phrase of George Orwell, is like a window pane: a frame upon which to view the world.

The job of a reporter and the job of a president are different. But it should be noted that it has been a tradition in presidential language – especially during crises – to speak softly, knowing that the stick is there if you need it.

Anytime nuclear war is in the news, as it is again with the threats posed by North Korea (inciting the president’s response), it’s wise to take a moment to revisit Hiroshima – if not the city, then at least the book.

Here’s the link to the original essay.

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    Roy Peter Clark

    Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty member, dean, vice-president, and senior scholar.

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