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Why We Still Hate Quotes Behaving Badly

(To read the entire “Quotes Behaving Badly” series, click here.)

Last year, Matthew Bradley passed along a link to an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education on, well, “Quotes Behaving Badly”. Corey Robin, a political science professor at Brooklyn College, describes the phenomenon of the “Wrongly Attributed Statement” (or as we call them, “Quotes Behaving Badly”. Naming things!). I really liked the essay…

Until I read the ending.

Corey Robin ends his essay defending this phenomenon as a (sort of) triumph of group think, or in his words, crowdsourcing:

“It's precisely these sorts of affectations—and appeals to authority—that have led me over the years to a greater appreciation of the WAS. I no longer think of it as a simple pain in the neck or desperate appeal to authority. I now see it as a kind of democratic poetry, an emanation of genius from the masses. We recognize the utility of crowdsourcing. Why not the beauty of crowdwriting? Someone famous says something fine—"When bad men combine, the good must associate"—and some forgotten wordsmith, or wordsmiths, through trial and error, refashions it into something finer: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.

“It's good that we remember the knockoff rather than the original. The knockoff is better—and we made it.”

Nope.

First, Wrongly Attributed Statements, by definition, don’t change the meaning of a quote; they misidentify its authorship. That’s just intellectually wrong and corrupt. Misinformation exists; we don’t need to celebrate or endorse it. Most “Quotes Behaving Badly” (or Wrongly Attributed Statements) violate basic truth by misidentifying the author in an attempt to give the thought greater gravitas. (Think Plato versus George Santayana.) We should try to stamp that misinformation out, not celebrate it. Websites like BrainyQuote, ThinkExist, GoodReads and others, which use algorithms to systematically misidentify the actual authorship of a quote, just need to go. They perpetuate bad information.

Especially in today’s world, when it takes, what, a couple minutes to find the actual authorship of a quote? When Edmond Halley investigated comets, he had to comb through ancient tome after ancient tome documenting every mention of a comet. Today, you can Google search virtually every book that’s ever been written. Sites like Snopes, Quote Investigator, Wikiquote and Google Books make the process of researching and debunking “Quotes Behaving Badly” easier than it’s ever been in human history.    

Worse than that, as the cliche goes, conventional wisdom is just that, conventional. (If I wanted, I could attribute that cliche to Ben Franklin, inventing my own Wrongly Attributed Statement, giving the cliche the imprimatur of intellectual rigor.) Or often flat wrong.

As any reader to our “Quotes Behaving Badly” series know, we don’t just debunk the authorship of quotes; we debunk the quotes themselves. Let’s just look at two examples cited by Corey Robin. First, he cites Plato’s George Santanaya’s quote, “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” as an example of a “Wrongly Attributed Statement”. Yes, it’s misattributed. It’s also wrong. As we’ve written and written, the world is safer than it has ever been; war is decreasing. Though most people reject this thesis, it’s happening. But this fatalistic little maxim denies this reality without using any evidence to support its claim, using the second or third most famous ancient Greek philosopher to give it the veneer of wisdom.

Same with Robin’s example, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." As we wrote before, “It’s banal and, in the hands of demagogues, has probably caused more death than it's saved.” This quote is also useless. Anti-war.com uses this quote and so do far right extremists. So does this sentiment actually send more people to battle than not? Does it actually prevent peace or reconciliation?

We’re going to keep debunking quotes like this, both their authorship and their sentiments. In a rigorous, forward-moving world, it’s not just something people can do; it’s something they should.

Especially academics.

One comment

I agree that the wrap-up to Dr. Robin’s essay is quite odd and objectionable. Interestingly enough, he wrote a very good essay on the power of the state (https://www.jacobinmag.com/2012/12/yours-mine-but-not-ours/) and he appears to stress the importance of understanding the meaning behind statements correctly. Perhaps his suggestion is that pithy statements used to shortcut or bypass the effort of intellectual conversation can be manipulated by the crowd without much ill effect.