Quotations and Deceptions

As a historian and one who researches primary sources, I’m not a big follower or seeker of quotations.  Twitter accounts and websites devoted to quotations of famous people, politicians or authors (etc.) will throw up a stack of witticisms and wisdom attributed to various so-and-sos.  These get lifted and quoted in editorials and speeches, but context and sources are often left out.  This makes for some oddities by the unsuspecting (and unthinking?) speaker or writer.

Now, I pull quotes as evidence when I am writing about history, but I do it with a citation for the source and I make the context of the quotation clear–anything less would be unethical.  So, this post is not really about the evidentiary use of quotes that historians (and other academics) frequently use, nor about those quotes the media is supposed to supply in news reports (assuming they have done so ethically and competently).  This is about the random quote hawker and random quote seeker.

“Don’t be a good quote surfer, be a good reader!”

Think about someone who has been well-quoted and prolific with a long life of writings or speeches.  Such a person may be particularly remembered for a given episode of his or her life.  Think about how that would color the quotes from other episodes of his or her life.  For example, consider the case of Elie Wiesel, a well-respected, thought-provoking, quotable author and speaker, who for a long time after his Holocaust experience was an atheist.  Today, he is further from his Night and indeed has lived through the Dawn.  Quotes pulled without context from Elie Wiesel can be really misleading, especially as he his still most strongly connected for his recollections in Night.

So, take this as a word of caution.  Even when quoting literature–go read Hamlet and really take a look at the character and context for the quote, “To thine own self be true,”–don’t just lift someone else’s words, respect the speaker or the writer, learn the context for the line you want and use that to make your point, as well.  Don’t be a good quote surfer, be a good reader and self-educator.


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