i used to be friends with a woman who loved quotes. she was really invested in social justice & she was like a wizard, she had a quote at the ready for pretty much any newsworthy event or occurence ever. it made me kind of uncomfortable, because the quotes generally functioned as trite bromides that did not create space for the nuances of a given situation. it was almost as if all the space in her head that may have been used for critical thinking & intellectual imagination was instead stuffed with the contents of bartlett’s familiar quotations.
i thought about this yesterday, when social networking sites across the interwebz exploded with the news that osama bin laden had been killed by american forces in pakistan. as a counterpoint to the street parties that followed & the celebratory, xenophobic, hateful commentary streaming across the web, thousands of people posted this a martin luther king jr. quote: “i 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.”
apparently what happened is that someone somewhere looked up a real martin luther king jr. quote that seemed to sum up their feelings–that’s this part: “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.” (ps–the next line is, “hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” most people left that out, perhaps not wanting to include the word “love” in anything related to osama bin laden.) it’s from a 1963 book called strength to love, from the chapter that is all about how & why to love your enemies. (i read the chapter & it is totally bibletastic, which, you know, martin luther king jr. was a reverend. he was into social justice in large part because he thought it was the christian way to be. i have very complex feelings about using christian bible verses to respond to the death of a muslim person. i don’t know.) someone preceded the real quote with their own commentary–that’s the first sentence. things got garbled & within an hour, the entire quote, including the bit that martin luther king jr. never said, had gone viral was being attributed to him in full.
at least 50% of my facebook friends posted the misquote yesterday. it rang false to me–somehow too perfectly appropriate while also reading as a little insincere. if you really parse out the first sentence, it doesn’t even really make any sense. the conjunction “but” is for connecting two sentiments or ideas that are related but opposed. “mourning the loss of thousands of lives” is only connected to “celebrating the death” of one in that they are both related to people dying. it is self-evident that if a person will mourn the deaths of thousands of people, they are pretty unlikely to celebrate the death of one. the sentence seemed clunky & very un-martin luther king jr. to me, & the rest of the quote, the real martin luther king jr., is full of his usual metaphorical imagery, & has pretty much nothing to do with the first sentence at all.
so i googled it. all that came up was hundreds & hundreds of links to the quote, all from social networking sites, all from yesterday, all in response to osama bin laden’s death. but if it were a real martin luther king jr. quote, wouldn’t the speech or essay from which it came have appeared somewhere? then “the atlantic” posted something about the quote being fake. i took the quote apart, googled again, & figured out what happened.
i find this whole thing super-fascinating, probably because i am a big nerd in a lot of ways. how is it possible that thousands & thousands of intelligent people followed along with their peers in the fiction that the entire quote was the real deal, available at their fingertips for expressing their complicated emotions about the huge news of osama bin laden’s death? the cynic in me (which is to say, about 98% of me) couldn’t help but think that it happened because the quote was the perfect manufactured soundbite for well-intentioned liberals to portray themselves as genteel, objective, & compassionate. quote misattribution & invention is EVERYWHERE, it happens constantly, especially around subjects that are controversial & divisive. this is one big reason why i am not a fan of quotes. not only do they leave little room for discussion or independent thought (i mean, who among us would want to go toe to toe in a battle of wits with martin luther king jr., or mark twain, or oscar wilde, or any of the other gazillions of historical figures & thinkers that have been victims of misattribution?), but they can be cherrypicked & tweaked to mean pretty much anything anyone wants them to mean.
a couple of weeks ago, i was looking up statistics on how many teenage girls who have abortions go on to have repeat abortions while they are teenagers. i found scads of numbers, drawn for all kinds of sources, & used to argue all kinds of different perspectives in the debate on abortion. it’s no secret to anyone who has done so much as write a research paper that statistics can be used to justify pretty much any position you want. quotes function the same way.
what’s really interesting to me is how much traction this quote got, & in what demographic groups, & how people are responding to the news that it is not 100% real. the general response seems to be, “well, it’s still a nice sentiment, even if it isn’t real.” yes, it’s a nice sentiment. but part of its currency & resonance came from the fact that it was presented as a real quote from a real person, & that person was martin luther king jr., who is famous for being a peacemaker, a great orator, & a master of diplomacy around incredibly divisive issues. attaching his name to the words gave them power beyond simple sentiment. then people say, “the last part of the quote is real, it’s just the first sentence that was made up.” yes, & it’s the first sentence that sets the contextual tone that made the entire quote so appropriate for the news of bin laden’s death. in fact, many people chose only to quote the first sentence, as it was the most relevant to the news yesterday, dropping the real quote because i guess they thought the flowery language about light & stars & hate packed less of a punch.
the fact that the quote was so popular among left-leaning social justice types is also really interesting to me. quote misattribution is practically all the tea party ever does–i think they must have a special disinformation team that sits in a locked bunker, making up quotes to justify their fucked up hateful politics. it’s like a running joke, that all these constitutionalists are apparently so dumb, they don’t even know what’s actually in the constitution, they can’t tell the bill of rights from the preamble. but is the left so different? people were told that a quote was by martin luther king jr. & they just ran with it, even though said quote was not really written in his voice & did not make a whole lot of sense. it was a big game of monkey see monkey do, among people who pride themselves on being smarter than their opponents, more politically engaged, more versed in history.
now a lot of people are saying things like, “i saw the quote, i liked it, i posted it. i was busy.” too busy to be accurate? shit happens, we all make mistakes, we all sometimes believe things that aren’t true or trust when we shouldn’t trust. being too busy to source a quote that fifty of your friends are telling you is legit is way the fuck down on the Big List of Mistakes That Matter. but you know…none of these people was too busy to be on facebook or twitter or tumblr or whatever in the first place. they were not too busy to weigh in on a very contentious news item, even if they did not do so in their own words. it took me less than three minutes of googling to determine that the quote was an invention. so “too busy” functions as a defensive smokescreen. people say, “sorry i don’t fact check every single thing i read.” well, i don’t fact check every single thing i read either. but i do read everything with a critical eye, & when i stumble across something that doesn’t smell right, i do a little digging before i tell my fifty closest friends that it’s real. it’s called “media literacy” & it’s not just for reading the paper or picking apart beer commercials.
people say, “you are reading too much into this, it doesn’t really matter.” i think it matters at least a little. we are bombarded with information, statistics, quotes, opinions, & news all day, everyday. if we are going to be responsible citizens of the world, we need to have some ability to parse through the bullshit & determine what seems real & what seems false, what we believe in & what we are told to believe in. i have been accused more times than i can count of having standards that are too high (standards of critical thinking, eloquence, political comprehension, all kinds of things), but i apply those same standards to myself & i do it because i do think it’s important. i want to be a person who is capable of developing my own opinions & then expressing them in my own words. i want to be able to support them with information that i have verified. humans are not creatures of pure instinct. we do have the ability to reason. let’s use it!