“There’s a difference between philosophy and a bumper sticker.” ~ Charles M. Schulz
My how we love our quotes. They’re short, often pithy, relatively easy to remember (give or take a word or two). Put simply, they are, well, quotable.
They sure make life easier. And the internet has made it easier than ever to find the right quote for the right moment.
Quotes make for great Facebook or Twitter updates and they can be wonderful conversation starters if the subject (or the person being quoted) is controversial. And if you’ve got nothing of merit to add, you can always ‘Like’ it to show your support for the general statement.
I like them. Go on back through my posts, you’ll see I tend to start my posts with the snappy bon mot of some respected writer or an emotionally loaded snippet of a song lyric. You want to know how I got my above quote? I typed in “quotes about quotes” in the Google search bar and pages of quotes appeared before me.
As concise and often witty as a good quote can be, they really are empty phrases. We all know that girl who throws up some lovesick quote on her IM Friday night while she’s out partying and making out with Frat boys. Or the dumbass guy who can’t even spell ‘quotation’ but plasters his Facebook bio with Churchill and Roosevelt sayings. Quoting someone is the easiest way to lie. It makes you sound deep or emotionally vulnerable or well-read, when in fact, any ninny can copy and paste someone else’s words.
Obviously, as I already said, I like quotes. I use them, and I think quotes can be efficient tools for briefly summing up a point. But they should be used as an introduction to a larger point, not as bullet points in an argument. A page of 50 quotes doesn’t make an argument; it’s a souvenir shop for intellectual tourists.
What’s worse than the false persona that quote mining can help you craft, though, is the false persona one can project onto the quoted person. We take one sentence out of a person’s entire life of written and spoken words and suddenly we can make them the spokesperson for any cause we choose.
Quote mining, as it’s called, is pulling one sentence out of context. Quote mining is what has made Thomas Jefferson and Albert Einstein “Christians” when anyone versed in their well-documented personal philosophies can see they eschewed all religious persuasions, let alone Christianity. Quote mining is also what has turned Adolf Hitler into an “Atheist” despite his repeated references to God in both writing and speeches (to be fair, I don’t think it’s fair to call Hitler a Christian, either. He had a belief in God, maybe even the Christian one, but his personal philosophy was a twisted, perverted form of self-worship).
Every misappropriated quote has its opposite equal, and any argument that is reduced to quote bombs is a pointless exercise in logical fallacy.
I don’t want to come off as picking on Christians (oh, what the heck), but I think the Pop Culture version of Christianity that is practiced by the majority of American (or Western) Christians is guiltiest of this abusive quote mining. It can be seen in the way scientists’ words are often taken out of context to supposedly support the ridiculous notion that Evolution is in doubt among the scientific community (it is not) or when America is called a “Christian Nation” because of a couple of words in otherwise clearly secular documents.
But the true root of this phenomenon, I believe, is in the way young Christians are encouraged, even trained, to read the Bible like it were a book of quotes. Nothing has done more to damage the understanding of the Bible as a collection of separate, yet spuriously related writings than the addition of chapters and verses. One thing is clear: When the original books of the Bible were written, they weren’t written with these chapter and verse breaks. It doesn’t really matter when they were added, but it does matter that they were added.
Now, I don’t believe the Bible is the inspired word of God, since I don’t believe in any god. But for those who do claim to believe in the divinity of your 2 lbs Gideon, doesn’t it seem like a rather sacrilegious way to read HIS ALMIGHTY WORD when all you’re doing is looking for a pretty little verse to throw on a bumpersticker or t-shirt (or angry, misspelled protest sign)? There are a lot of inspiring words in the Bible if you believe in the whole god thing, but it’s pretty reductionist of you to turn the supposed word of God into a bunch of platitudes for your bad day.
Yeah, sure, John 3:16 is easy to remember (do you remember it?), and it’s a nice, succinct summary of the foundational belief of Christianity, but can you tell me what John 3:15 and John 3:17 says? Or, for that matter, what the entire context of Jesus’ speech was?
For the one or two of you out there that actually do know the context, congratulations, pat yourself on the back. But, how many of your fellow Christians do you think can say the same? If the Bible is truly the inspired Word, don’t you think God would want you to read and understand the Bible from page 1 to page 777 (or whatever) instead of picking and choosing quotable verses like low hanging apples?
Sidenote: It’s amazing how many self-proclaimed Christians haven’t read the entire Bible; on the flipside, it’s impressive (though not surprising) how many Atheists have read the entire Bible.
I could probably pick on Christians all day, but that’s not really the point. For one, Atheists quote mine with the best of them. As does pretty much everyone else when it’s easy.
Taking quotes out of context allows you to lie about your own intelligence while also lying about another person’s beliefs. Two birds, one stone. (I’m quoting.)
But, perhaps worst of all, quote mining reduces complex, intelligent, articulate human beings (and idiots, as well) to one singular thought. I’ve written a lot of words in my life, and spoken a few, too. If you took any one quote out of my whole oeuvre, you could make me out to be a whole host of things. Everything from a Raging Atheist to a Fundamentalist Christian, a Heartless Conservative to a Braindead Liberal, a Sex-Crazed Hetero to a Teddy Bear Homo and a gambit of any other extremes you want. (For the record, I’m a Raging Atheistic Liberal and Heartlessly Sex-Crazed Hetero with Homo leanings who likes long walks on the beach and snuggling.)
Words are a mighty tool, a beautiful artistic medium and a healing medicine. But they are, ultimately, just words.
It’s why I don’t put much stock in Political Speeches, Religious Convictions or Loving Promises. It’s easier to say than it is to do.
And once it’s been said, it’s even easier for someone else to say it, over and over again.
You can quote me on that.