Saturday, October 08, 2005


Dear Reader,

Consider two studies by Martin Porter about quotations.

The first, ‘All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing’ (or words to that effect): A study of a Web quotation, from January 2002, traces a popular quote attributed to Edmund Burke to show he probably never said or wrote it. Scrape this bumpersticker off your car or change its attribution to Anonymous.

The second, Four Principles of Quotation: Being a follow up to A study of a Web quotation, from March 2002, tracks the false Burke quote, and ends suggesting four principles for quotations. Let's call them the Porter Principles:

Principle 1 (for readers)
Whenever you see a quotation given with an author but no source assume that it is probably bogus.

Principle 2 (for readers)
Whenever you see a quotation given with a full source assume that it is probably being misused, unless you find good evidence that the quoter has read it in the source.

Principle 3 (for quoters)
Whenever you make a quotation, give the exact source.

Principle 4 (for quoters)
Only quote from works that you have read.

Martin Porter's principles are excellent advice. Information out of context is noise. Our Misinformation Age is noisy, maybe even toxic. It is far too easy for writers to make things worse. Perhaps writers need an equivalent to the doctor's Hippocratic Oath: do not spread information out of context, either fragmented or in false contexts. Perhaps writers should consider a related mission: to make things better. Readers need to develop skepticism, need to realize that writers have taken no Hippocratic Oath, that everything they write is at best partly false. I am no exception. Readers and writers need the Porter Principles.

We should examine why any writer uses quotations, how they function within the text.

Most texts I read use quotations to appeal to authority, the writer trying to strengthen a weak argument by getting famous dead people to gang up on the reader. The writer should be capable of marshaling an adequate argument without calling on his influential buddies to help him out.

Other texts use quotations to hold the reader's interest, the writer struggling to stave off the reader's boredom. Gratuitous quotations are not needed to patch up a lively argument about a compelling subject.

I quote Mr. Porter because I have been sloppy with my own use of quotations, and I have fallen for this Edmund Burke pseudo-quote; perhaps you have as well. To amplify a subtlety of his two essays, we cannot know Mr. Burke never said or wrote this, only that we have no evidence he did, and that the sentiment expressed--that human affairs reduce to good and evil, and that the forces of evil will win unless the forces of good mobilize to stop them--does not sound like Mr. Burke. He criticized those who reduced human affairs to such a black-and-white apocalypse, according to Mr. Porter. We have attributed this quotation to Mr. Burke only because others have, on websites and bumper stickers that we have used as reliable sources of information.

The ancient Greeks carved Gnothi seauton on the temple before the Oracle at Delphi: Know thyself. Mr. Porter's two studies remind us of one of the most important things we should know about ourselves: too often, our inner sheep "think" for us. If we have the character strength to submit ourselves to the discipline of adhering to his principles, we will find it humbling to discover how much misinformation we believe. We have such poor mental hygiene that our minds are brimming over with lies and errors, which we routinely use to draw conclusions and make decisions. Misuse of quotations is one of the least serious symptoms of our filthy minds, but also an easy target for us to try to overcome, to begin to realize our beliefs are far from perfect. We know far, far less than we think we do, and most of what we do with our minds should not be called thinking at all.

Many of the fragments we have of Heraclitus's Peri physeos (On Nature), which I will explore frequently in these blog entries, wrestle with this dilemma in which humanity finds itself--our very survival as a species depends on our ability to think clearly about complex and dangerous subjects, but we are deeply irrational. Our irrationality leaves its fingerprints all over everything we do. Look! Detective Martin Porter has found the fingerprints of our irrationality on poor Edmund Burke. We cannot even quote a famous man correctly. We draft his corpse to argue on our behalf, put words in his cold, dead mouth.

If we show such contempt for an eloquent and honored statesman, how will we treat ordinary people like you and me? If we cannot be bothered with the truth when it is easy, like quoting a man correctly, why should anyone believe we will sacrifice for the truth when money, power, careers, or lives are at stake?

Cultivating a more honorable character, more honest, more noble, begins with the easy things, the little things, like learning to quote each other with care and respect. Without the regular practice of these minor tests, we will never shape up our characters enough for the trials troubled times will inflict upon us.

The details of life matter in ways we cannot imagine.

Sincerely yours,

Postscript: My thanks to Martin Porter, Lee Frank, Frank Lynch, Paul Boller, John George, William Safire, and the others involved in removing our words from Edmund Burke's mouth. One down, a google to go.


Danny Barer said...

The dictum to read a work before quoting it is especially good advice for writers of legal briefs. Published court opinions are hodgepodges of holdings and observations -- some of which may be applicable to your argument, and some of which will be unrelated. When you find the perfect sentence or paragraph that supports your argument, it's highly tempting to ignore the rest of the opinion -- particularly if it's 50 or 100 pages long; and particularly if you're facing a deadline. I've done it sometimes. The problems are that (1) you may be taking your quote out of context; (2) what you quote may be unnecessary to the outcome of the opinion and thus dictum (in the other sense of the word -- obiter dictum, which isn't binding authority); and (3) there may be something elsewhere in the opinion that cuts directly against your point. Your opponent and the court will have ready access to anything you quote or cite -- and can turn any of those problems against you. There are also those who deliberately quote opinion language out of context -- a foolish move, since, again, the judge or the opponent can look up the case. That is certainly true of other types of persuasive writing as well.

Kathy Ice said...

Porter seems to be saying that the only legitimate source for a quotation is a written work. I disagree. Some of my favorite quotations come from the spoken, not the written, word.

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