Critical Thinking, Defensiveness, History, Internet, Pinterest, Quotes, Rationalization, spam, Spurious Quotes
Been thinking a bit lately about THIS old post?
It’s still an interest of mine.
So, I sometimes make a point to call out the spurious quotes thriving all over the net these days. It’s not the most noble of personal callings, I know, but I noticed a long time ago that the information correcting some of this stuff isn’t often found in the same electronic neighborhood as the political pornography in which these bullshit quotes normally reside. So, I reckon it ain’t the least useful thing a guy could do with a spare 15 minutes or so to introduce the author of an un-sourced quote to a well reasoned debunkitation.
I’m often fascinated by the responses I get.
I was quite interested when Pinterest suspended my account for a few weeks, …I think over this. I could be wrong, but I do think this pastime is what did it.
The thing is, you can find the same spurious quotes in countless memes all over Pinterest. It’s just so damned easy to spread information when all it takes is the click of one ‘save’ button. The net is full of ccrap, I know, but the political hashtags at Pinterest are a particularly bullshit rich environment.
I can say it in a few different ways, but what needs to be said in response to these fake quotes is usually pretty simple, and I can’t help thinking a good link to Mount Vernon or Monticello.org ought to find itself somewhere in the response. The link alone really ought to suffice. The trouble is that these misquote-laden memes are distributed through a variety of different accounts on Pinterest. If I’m posting a lot of links to the same page correcting them, then of course I am the spammer.
Don’t get me wrong, the principle in question makes a kind of sense, as does its application. You don’t want someone posting the same link over and over again on a social media platform, but it does create an ironic outcome. In this instance, at least, it seems that’s a lot easier to spread disinformation than it is to counter it.
Before moving onto the more personal responses I’ve gotten over the years, I must admit that my own tone here varies. If I think the person passing along a fake quote has done so accidentally, I try to just call attention to the problem. Hell, I reckon I’ve probably made this mistake myself once or twice. It ain’t no hanging matter; I just want to correct a (hopefully honest) mistake. If, on the other hand, the fake quote is accompanied by narratives about how teachers, media, and liberals are too damned deceitful to share the ‘truth’ of the quote, I must admit, my own response is likely to come with a little sarcasm on the top. There are of course other signs of bad faith that I typically meet with a more combative tone.
Sometimes I’m nicer about this than others.
Also, sometimes, I just ask people for a source to see what they come up with.
Oh yeah, my first post on this topic, the one about Abe Lincoln, has a couple rich responses of its own. Still kinda chuckle about those.
By far and away,, the most interesting response I get is the occasional effort to document the quote by linking me to the ‘spurious quotes’ pages at Monticello or Mount Vernon. Seriously, this has happened a few times.
“Did you read it?” I ask.
At least once, someone realized their mistake at that point and owned up to it. She gets props for doing the right thing.
Once I was assured by someone that clearly hadn’t read the material that he totally had read every word of it. He also assured me that he understood what ‘spurious’ means. Yep! Definitely! We went a few rounds on that, before he dropped out of the conversation. A ‘block’ button may have been pushed. I dunno…
Others simply stopped responding immediately.
Someone else told me I was being rude.
…which was of course true.
Several people have tried to tell me that the quote in question may have been undocumented, but that it accurately reflected what the person to whom it was attributed really did believe. I got this at least once with a popular bastardization of George Washington’s first address to Congress.
…right after I had explained in detail exactly how the quote misrepresented him.
It seems that to some people making this argument these quotes are a kind of Kantian thing-in-itself (a truth truth-in-itself?). The truth as they envision it rests over and above the facts, even the facts of its own expression. If you can’t find one clear expression of that truth in the messy real-world of the historical record, that doesn’t matter, because we know the truth and the source to whom it has been attributed must have known it. So they might as well have said it.
It’s all true anyway, so what’s the problem?
This is one of the more disturbing responses I get, because it reveals an air tight echo chamber in the thinking of the person in question. They love America’s founding fathers and they love their guns and such, and two things they love must love each other, and so when the real-world George Washington doesn’t live up to their masturbatory fantasies, well then, they can just speak up and say what he woulda said anyway.
The rationale also works for any number of subjects certain people feel America’s founding fathers must certainly have loved every but as much as they do.
…even if those founders didn’t actually say so.
Not much to be done about folks who reason like that.
Another common response is to ask how I know the quote isn’t real.
…and that’s one of those moments when I remember why burdens of proof matter.
A related tactic is to assure me that the quote is real and tell me to do my own research. Faced with credible sources that claim the quotes can’t be found in any known archives, those using this tactic assure me that the quote is real and that we skeptics really ought to work harder.
…which brings to mind words like ‘gaslighting’, ‘trolling’, ‘asshole’, and a quick end to the conversation.
Sometimes people complain that my efforts to check them reveal a character flaw on my own part. Don’t I have anything better to do?
No such questions seem to have been asked about the time it takes the individuals in question to pass along a spurious quote. But of course, we all have much more important things to do when the one we are presently engaged in turns out to be a little frustrating. It’s human nature.
Probably the most common response I get to declare the source of the quote irrelevant. It’s the idea that matters, I am told, and surely that idea is true. So, it doesn’t matter if Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin or any other made up source didn’t really say what they were supposed to have said. That’s not the point. The point is it’s true.
I must say that it’s an interesting coincidence that so many timeless truths that could come from any source really, seem so often to be attributed to sources of great political value. It’s also an interesting coincidence that so many of them seem quite useful to specific political agendas today, agendas which often sail under the banner of faithfulness to American principles and respect for the wishes of America’s founding fathers. It’s really quite convenient that so many questionable quotes would seem to provide the politics of the people in question with the authority of a voice from the founding fathers. The sources really don’t matter, so it seems, not after the source has been debunked.
Perhaps I could be excused for thinking the source mattered, at least a little, before that source came into question.
What I always find most interesting about this tactic is how seamless the transition is from presenting an undocumented quote to declaring the named source irrelevant to its content. People employing this tactic rarely take so much as a moment to acknowledge their error. Often they avoid conceding the point altogether as they shift from a historical claim about who said what to a kind of Platonic reasoning in which the idea itself is all that really matters.
And thus a person wholly unconcerned with the falsehood of a factual claim suddenly becomes the priest of a timeless truth.
Oh yeah, some people don’t respond at all. Some just keep right on producing the bullshit quotes too. This is particularly true of some websites like BrainyQuote. It’s also true of some dedicated ideological warriors. They just keep right on posting the fake quotes long after a reasonable person might have at least quietly deleted the material from a blog or a social media account.
There is one response that gets me every time, and that’s the one where somebody simply acknowledges the mistake. Often this is followed by a ‘thank you’. Maybe they take down the quote. Maybe they just let their acknowledgement of the correction stand for itself in the discussion. Either way, it’s a class move.
These days, such responses surprise me a little more than they ought to.
…and that’s kinda sad.
I suppose it doesn’t really surprise me that people would respond defensively to such things. People don’t usually like to be corrected. I know I don’t. And of course, any of us could get things like this wrong. That’s not terrible. It’s human. Still, some of these rationalizations do seem to give you a peak behind the curtain, so to speak, into the mind of someone for whom due diligence is simply unthinkable. They must be right one way or another, so they seem to think.
…even if they are wrong!