Friday, May 20, 2011

How Fast the Machine Can Get Out of Hand

On Wednesday we talked about how writers are subject to the language of their day. This brought to mind a recent bout of my own with the rhetoric machine – specifically the quotation portion of the machine.


As you surely know, a couple weeks ago, Osama bin Laden was killed. The national reaction was big. Facebook and Twitter and the comments section of political blogs lit up like Las Vegas. Suddenly everyone spoke up at once. Everything from celebratory shout-outs to conspiracy theories hit the social media scene. And, unlike Agatha Christie’s time period, where the readers were forced to wait for newspapers or magazines (and only newspapers or magazines) to get to print, this kind of stuff was in front of millions of people all at once.

At times like that it’s common to look to historical figures (read: mentors, anyone?) to help sum-up the momentous occasion. This occasion was no different. Two particular ‘quotes’ started to pop up:

1. Attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr.: "I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy."

2. Attributed to Mark Twain: “I have never wished a man dead, but I have read some obituaries with great pleasure.”

Unfortunately, neither quote ever came from either man.

The first is a mis-post on Facebook, according to The Atlantic. Apparently an English teacher in Japan did not noticeably separate the MLK quote from her own opinion and thus was born a sentiment that was shared by millions. If you have a few minutes, Megan McArdle’s piece is well worth reading – anything with this kind of observation: “mangled to meme in less than two days” works for me. (And I have to say that I’m mega-impressed that this one was hunted down at all.)

The second quote, the ‘Mark Twain’ quote, is the one that I tripped up on, because I could’ve sworn that I’d heard it before -- turns out I had, just not from Twain. Caught up in the moment, I reposted without verifying. And that’s exactly what it was: caught up in the moment. My brother served overseas. My father is a contractor who deals in these dangerous areas. My next door neighbor was killed by an IED. I live in a military town. No lie – I wasn’t sad to hear the bin Laden news. And the sentiment expressed by the Twain ‘quote’ fit perfectly with my mood. (Still does, if I’m being totally honest.)

But, you know.

Talk about embarrassing when talk of the false quotations started going around!

Turns out the second quote is actually from Clarence Darrow’s The Story of My Life, according to Alexis Madrigal over at The Atlantic Wire. The full quote: “All men have an emotion to kill; when they strongly dislike some one they involuntarily wish he was dead. I have never killed any one, but I have read some obituary notices with great satisfaction.” I have no problem reposting this…Clarence Darrow was a pretty smart dude. If he sounds familiar it’s because he was the lawyer for the defense in the Scopes trial – dramatized in Inherit the Wind.

This is a great illustration, to me at least, of the importance of being aware of what you’re saying – and for a brief once-over of the consequences of not being aware, check out McArdle’s piece in The Atlantic. She talks about how people started defending the false quotations, creating historical references where none existed. So, yes, something potentially dangerous can rise out of something as seemingly insignificant as a quotation from a person who died years ago.

I’ll take this second to apologize to my Facebook buddies for spreading falseness through the ranks. After all, my integrity is not something I like to risk. Emotions can get the best of us, as it did for me in this circumstance, but we should always work to be constantly aware.

How’s about you guys? Have you ever misquoted? Or have you ever put yourself out there, sure that you were right, only to find out (Dammit!) that you were, ahem, not-as-right-as-you-thought?

2 comments:

  1. This is so neat! I, like many, had no idea where these came from. Good sleuthing!

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  2. Yes! I don't mind being corrected, and as soon as Claire uncovered the truth of the Martin Luther King Jr quote, I put up a new update on FB. I love getting to the bottom of stuff :-)

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