May 4, 2011
Thoughtful, about why we quote and how we misquote, from the Economist’s Democracy in America blog:
Arguments from authority
May 4th 2011, 20:41 by E.G. | AUSTIN
AFTER the news that Osama bin Laden was killed the following quotation, attributed to Martin Luther King, quickly made the rounds via Facebook and Twitter:
I will mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.
Sceptics quickly flagged it as partly fake (the second and third sentences are correctly attributed, but the first is an addition) and wondered what would move someone to trump up a fake quotation. Megan McArdle, at the Atlantic, tracked it to its source: a middle-school teacher from Pennsylvania, who offered the first sentence as her own comment on the news, accompanied with the real quote from Dr King. Having seen the genealogy, it’s clear that this was a simple error; the comment was disseminated with its quotation marks mangled, so by the time it was retweeted by magician Penn Jillette, the toothpaste was out of the tube.
This episode corroborates my analysis from last month about a couple of fake quotations that are popular with the tea-party movement and attributed to Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. There wasn’t evidence of conspiracy there, and here, thanks to Ms McArdle’s sleuthing, there’s evidence to the contrary. Both are reminders that we should be as open to the possibility of honest mistakes as to the possibility of deliberate mischief.
What remains is the question of motive. We can posit that people aren’t particularly disposed to pass on fake quotations, as it doesn’t seem likely that they know they’re fake at the time. But why do people reach for quotations in general? I think there are two reasons. The first is that quotations are distancing. Passing along someone else’s comment implies some endorsement of the argument, but it’s not really your comment, and you can back off if challenged. The second is that quotations invoke the authority of the person quoted to supplement or complement the authority of the person who’s quoting them. A politician might quote a statesman from another era or country to add a frisson of independence; a writer might quote Mark Twain to add a giblet of cleverness; an advocate might quote a scientist to add some evidence.
Of course, arguments from authority don’t settle debates. In making a case, the important thing is what’s being said and how it’s supported, rather than who’s saying it. (That’s one of the reasons The Economist mostly eschews bylines.) But as a quick reaction, quotations are fine. The garbled King quotation became popular in the wake of an event that lots of Americans found morally sensitive or troubling, for the reasons my colleague discusses below.
Dr King was an appropriate person to cite, given the context; he was a reverend, but he is accepted as a mostly noncontroversial moral authority who is respected by religious and secular people alike. The people who passed it along were looking to express their discomfort with how Mr bin Laden was killed and how America reacted, at an emotive moment when expressing that discomfort probably felt a bit controversial. The quotation in question, mangled as it was, helped give them the confidence to do so.