Fake Quote Ethics

"Osama? The SOB had it coming."---Gandhi

Among the wise commentators who tut-tutted the unseemly rejoicing among Americans upon learning of the death of Osama bin Laden was the Rev. Martin Luther King, who sagely remarked, “I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy.” Rev. King’s words were immediately picked up and quoted yesterday in hundreds of blogs and news commentary, grateful for the silver-tongued orator and civil rights warrior’s ability to find just the right way to sum up what was troubling—to some— about the post-bin Laden festivities.

Wait...how could he do that? Rev. King is as dead as Osama! Well, he could do that because somebody decided to give his or her own sentiments the added influence, credibility and moral authority of an American hero, put their words in Rev. King’s mouth, and tweeted them to the world. [UPDATE: Now we know that’s not  exactly what happened—this time. An American teacher in Japan introduced a genuine King quote with her own sentiments, and her careless Facebook friends lost the quotation marks. Thanks to Barry Deutsch for the sleuthing.]

I resent it when people put words in my mouth, but at least I’m able to set the record straight, since I’m still alive. Rev. King, however, is past correcting fake quotes attributed to him, just as Abe Lincoln has never quite been able to shake the wide-spread belief that he said,

“You cannot help the poor by destroying the rich. You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong. You cannot bring about prosperity by discouraging thrift. You cannot lift the wage earner up by pulling the wage payer down. You cannot further the brotherhood of man by inciting class hatred. You cannot build character and courage by taking away men’s initiative and independence. You cannot help men permanently by doing for them, what they could and should do for themselves.”

The quote was really the work of William J. H. Boetcker. Who the hell is he, you ask? Exactly. As author Ralph Keyes said (really!), “Famous words need famous mouths.” So if you want your opinion to be given more credibility and persuasiveness than either its inherent value or its true originator deserves, what better strategy than to attribute it to someone revered for his wisdom, like Gandhi, Lincoln, Yogi Berra, or Martin Luther King?

It is, of course, an unethical strategy, greatly facilitated by the internet. It is dishonest. It confers false weight on a statement that should be evaluated purely on the thought it expressed. It is unfair. It creates misinformation that may take hold and prove difficult to correct (as with the fake Lincoln quote). Worst of all, it is disrespectful, for it can undermine the legacy of great historical figures by making them unfairly accountable for facile statements made by nonentities.

As long as people are going to make up famous quotes to bolster their own points of view, those who circulate second-hand quotes in the media or on-line have an added obligation of diligence: check that attribution. When an oddly appropriate and previously unknown quote suddenly issues from a famous icon, that ethics alarm should start ringing. Dead heroes can no longer protect their own reputations, so it falls to us, their inferiors, to be vigilant in their honor.

Oh..uh, Nathaniel Hawthorne said that.

9 thoughts on “Fake Quote Ethics

  1. Many years ago as a young ad copywriter I searched for just the right quote for a particular situation involving the arts. Not finding it, I made one up, and simply attributed it to “Locke,” my last name which happens to be shared with an actually famous deep thinker John Locke. A few years later I ran into someone involved in the arts, and somehow the conversation turned to advertising, and I asked him if he had seen that ad. He said “I saw it. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on John Locke and I’ve been searching for that quote for two years.” I admitted to my uh creative license with my own last name. He roared with laughter.

    • Ah! The sub-category of the deceitful quote, establishing you with other great purveyors of the form, like Julius Lincoln, Ned Jefferson, Claude Franklin, and “Snake” Shakespeare!

  2. Hah! Very funny story Linda… I chalk that up to being green and naivé… having a similar famous last name, I know how you feel.

    Sticking to the topic at hand, I am having a problem with the treatment of the death of OBL ( if it is being truly portrayed in the MSM the actual way it really happened – of which I am completely suspect… ) and of the glee and celebration that this ‘event’ is having on our society, and worse yet, how the MSM is ginning up the celebratory reaction, and needlessly so.

    Since you used Gandhi as an example, I quoted him on a fellow Blogger who has similar sentiments as mine when I responded to her excellent post from yesterday: I agree with what Gandhi so eloquently said, at least in the movie, which I hope was verbadim: ‘I am prepared to die for my cause, but I am not prepared to kill for it.’ Therefore, this ‘Killing of OBL’ gives me absolutely no pleasure, redemption or feelings of patriotism so aptly and enthusiastically displayed by our MSM.

    How do you feel about this? I do to a certain degree think that there is some justice to be served, but this is not a football contest, with sides winning or losing. IMO we should be very solemn and respectful of those different than us, speak softly but carry a big stick type of a scenario.

    I think that’s the ethical tightrope we as a society should be walking here.

    • ‘…carry a big stick type of scenario, because we all coexist on this tiny planet together, and have to live with each other regardless. I think we should reach out to the Muslim community now more than ever – much like John Stewart said last night on his show ( even though he is showing a bit more glee than I’d like to see, he was there in NYC on 9-11, and he thinks OBL is the primary perpetrator in the attack, of which I do not fault him. ) to paraphrase, Stewart said the Bogeyman is now dead, the face of the Muslim community to me now are all those in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen and Syria – those fighting for freedom.’

      I wanted to add that to my above comment.

      • My views on the subject are in a post from yesterday. https://ethicsalarms.com/2011/05/02/ethics-quote-of-the-day-lori-palatnik/
        I think feeling no exhilaration at the death of someone, no matter how vile, is a respectable reaction. I think expressing pleasure at it is fair as well. When an individual is a live threat, there is nothing wrong with being glad at his removal.

        I think the extent of the expression can be unseemly, and I sympathize with those who are uncomfortable with it. I also think celebrating when the opposing quarterback gets his leg broken by a tackle is unseemly. But as I say in the post, the instinct is part of the culture, and it has had its benefits.

    • Sure, except for the “thousands” part, which I think is a dead giveaway that the remark was tailored post 9/11. It’s something he might have said in a sappy moment. There’s a chance that almost anyone could say almost anything. My sister once said, “That fish looks so good, I think from now on I’ll wear my bra on my head.” I was there. Talk about a memorable quote! And believe it or not, it made sense at the time.

  3. As it turns out, it’s not true that “somebody decided to give his or her own sentiments the added influence, credibility and moral authority of an American hero.”

    The real story was more like a game of telephone. A facebook user, Jessica Dovey, wrote the new sentence as an introduction to a genuine MLK quote, clearly distinguishing between her own words and MLK’s with quote marks. But when people quoted Jessica, they lost her quote marks.

    So the writer of the seentence never had any dishonest intentions. Which I find kind of a cheery thought.

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