Ethics Blog

February 26, 2015

Herman Rosenblat - The Risk of Exaggeration

In the business section of the Feb 21, 2015 issue of the New York Times is an article about Herman Rosenblat, a Holocaust survivor who passed away at age 85 in a hospital in Aventura, Fla. Mr. Rosenblat wrote about his Holocaust experience in a book called: “Angel at the Fence.” The book was, according to Sam Roberts, the author of the New York Times article “not unexceptional” except for the amazing story, in the book, of young girl who threw him an apple over the barbed wire surrounding the concentration camp where he was held captive. Even more extraordinary, 12 years later the author saw her again, recognized her and married her. They lived “happily ever after” for the next 56 years.

However beautiful the story, there is one problem: the story is not true, or rather it is not exactly true. The episode of the girl and the apple never happened.

He justified his deception by saying:

“I wanted to bring happiness to people, to remind them not to have hate but to love and tolerate all people. “I brought good feelings to a lot of people and I brought hope to many. My motivation was to make good in this world.”

The sad thing is that Rosenblat will be remembered for his lie and not for his life. Case in point, the title of the NYT article mentioned above is:

“Herman Rosenblat, 85 Dies; made Up Holocaust Love Story.”

Bill O’Reilly’s Fox News story about his reporting on the war in the Falklands is under scrutiny. He repeatedly told his viewers that during the Falkland War, he had been reporting from the “War Zone,” when in fact he never set foot on the Falkland Islands but reported from Buenos Aires.

Robert McDonald, the recently appointed Secretary of Veterans Affairs recently claimed in a conversation that was recorded by CBS News that he “was in the Special Forces.” Actually he was not. He did graduate from West Point, completed the Army Rangers training and was assigned the 82nd Airborne Division but never served in the Special Forces.

He apologized, saying:

“I incorrectly stated that I had been in Special Forces,” his statement read. “That was inaccurate and I apologize to anyone that was offended by my misstatement.”

We all exaggerate somehow. Words like “zillions” and “mega” are by definition exaggerations. We do it for different reasons such as convenience, or to be more dramatic, to make a stronger point and even to manipulate. Sometimes we exaggerate to look better, smarter or more heroic. Exaggerations are very often used in advertising. Superlative such as “greatest,” “best” and “No. 1″ are most likely exaggerations.

Is it ever ethical to exaggerate? I believe that in most circumstances it is not because it strays away from the truth.

Exaggerating is a high-risk behavior and should be avoided as much as possible. The risk is the loss of trust that, once lost, can very rarely be regained.

As the Talmud says:

“If you add to the truth, you subtract from it.”

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