Why correct attribution of quotes matters (and why I don’t often quote people)

I’m not normally a pedant. I hope. But I found myself informing many of my friends that the Martin Luther King Jr quote they posted on Facebook was bogus. Why? After a bit of a heated discussion with a friend – now redacted and consigned to the nether regions of my email inbox and wherever Facebook’s super-spy-computer keeps them so they can serve me better ads – I decided that I think attribution of ideas is important. It might not matter quite as much if the person being quoted is dead, as is the case here, because it’s not doing real damage to somebody the way wrongly attributing a quote can. It’s not because I want to protect Martin Luther King’s legacy that I think this is bad, but because I think truth is important. Much more important than correct punctuation, and possibly important enough to risk offense over.

I pretty much entirely agree with the sentiment of Martin Luther King Jr’s actual quote.

“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.”

And I want people to care. I want people to value life and to see how similar the response to Osama’s death has been to the response in the Arab world to the September 11 attacks, where some sectors of the community danced and chanted in front of TVs.

I’d love people to stop and think before rushing outside chanting, celebrating, and raising the stars and stripes – or worse, copying this guy…

Via 22 Words

But say you disagree with the quote. Say you’re with motorbike man in the video above. Say you think Osama deserved to get it in the neck. Deserved much worse (which he did – if we’re working on some sort of economy of scale). Say you think this is an event worthy of celebration. And say you read that quote, and then check out its authenticity, and find that its a half truth. Are you then going to feel convicted by such a quote? I’d say there are many in that boat who aren’t. People who will dismiss the quote as though the well has been thoroughly poisoned.

The way we present a message matters almost as much as the message itself. The boundaries between medium and message matter. People are cynical. Snopes.com exists. Credibility is important – and correct attribution isn’t just part of being credible, but part of being truthful. And as a Christian, a Christian who wants people to listen when I talk about the incredible gospel of the resurrected Jesus, I can’t afford to be sloppy with the truth on small stuff. Because I want people to believe big stuff.
I agree with the quote. And yet. I haven’t posted it on my wall.

Partly this is because I haven’t read it in context. I have no idea what point MLK was actually making. Which I think is fundamentally important. Attributing the correct words to somebody without context is dangerous – it is, I think, one of the biggest hurdles to Christian mission. Years of poor proof texting, stripping verses of context is one massive factor preventing people engaging with and understanding the Bible.

I’d also much rather put the sentiment in my own words than have it come from somebody famous, as if the sentiment is only true because somebody famous said it was true. That’s a bizarre and dangerous argument from authority – and for Christians it runs the risk of creating some sort of super apostle where an idea is only worthy if it comes from someone with a special annointing.

Feel free to quote this post on Facebook. Attributed to me. But I’d prefer you to say something similar in your own words if you agree with me, while the viral spread of an idea is powerful, I have a hunch that the organic spread of an idea is longer lasting. I think that was probably the essence of Martin Luther King’s mission – while lots of us remember his “I have a dream” speech – many more people, people who have no idea who MLK was, have been influenced by the idea that all humans are created equal because people took the essence of that speech and ran with it.

That’s why I’ll be a pedant on stuff like this, and not on stuff that doesn’t matter quite so much (like your spelling, or your grammar, or your font – though those things are also part of how we package our message). That’s why I’m more likely to join a discussion involving an incorrect attribution or factual error in public, while I’d just privately tell you you’ve spelled a word wrong… because it’s important that the people who’ve read what you’ve said know that it’s not true too. I’ll try to be loving in the way I tell you you’re wrong though. Because that’s also part of the “medium” and the “message”…

2 Comments Why correct attribution of quotes matters (and why I don’t often quote people)

  1. AndrewFinden

    I don’t mind quoting people, particularly people who are writing with-in their field of expertise, and who say things in a way which resonates with me (though I will often give commentary anyway) but I agree that quoting out of context is dangerous.

    I made the decision a little while ago to never post a quote when I haven’t read the article, book, surrounding text, or speech from which it comes. I saw the way Sam Harris and his disciples distorted Francis Collins’ view based on an interpretation of a quote taken right out of context and which ignored where it came in his book.

  2. Pingback: Why correct attribution of quotes matters (and why I don’t often quote people) | Venn Theology

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