Jul 2, 2013

Fake Quotations and the Speciation of Wisdom

“Stop fucking with the words man. i maybe dead, but i am watching ~ Rumi”¹

These fake words by a real poet², exemplify a persistent occupational hazard of the Internet: the fake quotation. This particular one exists, of course, to poke fun at the genre by exposing the ease with which “genuine” quotes of wisdom can be freshly minted and set loose³.

Is it any wonder then that we are living through an epidemic of fake quotations?⁴ If you spend any amount of time online, you’ve been exposed to the most virulent strains and have also helped spread some of them. Contagion is a feature, the retweet is merely an unmuffled cough.

But where the quote-mongers are amok, can the crack investigation squad be far behind?

Historians and attribution hounds⁵ harness the beneficial side of the Force, straddling both social networks and history books to ferret out the most influential fakes, splicing and dicing them and trussing them up in shaming sites⁶ and the occasional tome⁷. It appears that Rumi and his ilk have the geeks and professionals watching over their legacy - which doesn’t quite explain the surly tone above.

Investigative interrogation of fake quotations usually approaches its task through the label⁸, and in defence, of the speaker: who said that? Did he or she really say it? Those exact words, in that order? Were there any emendations or elaborations? Was anything lost in the smithery?

Much of this is valid, worthy and commendable pursuit; and there’s the cause for historical research, preservation and literacy. The generation that doesn’t pay attention to its history may not only be condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past, but also certainly won’t get to enjoy screen epics with Brad Pitt in leather skirts.

* * *
For us who live through the constant and ever-present breeze of social and technological change, life before the Renaissance and Scientific Revolution would be hard to imagine. Innovation was often an accusation⁹, and there were little output, cultural or intellectual, to speak of. Also, someone seemed to have forgotten to switch the lights on¹⁰.

There are many reasons for the Renaissance to finally get going, but what kept the dark ages dark? Why, in Europe, for over a whole millenia were there no new instances of any scientist, or even a layperson, running out of his bath screaming ‘Eureka’?

Historians blame the ancient Greeks and Romans¹¹. Western Europeans of the middle ages lived in the colossal shadows and ruins of their intellectual forefathers. Everywhere they looked were glorious accomplishments of literature and art, accompanied by impressive feats of building and conquests. Surrounded by these persistent reminders of a triumphant past, people in the Middle Ages came to ascribe the ancients with God-like prowess. How could anyone ever improve upon anything these great civilisations devised - in technology, in science or in art? Why should anyone even bother trying?

The misfortune of the Middle Ages is that they found themselves in no position to ignore what came before - it was usually colossal, in composition and in reputation.

Our misfortune, on the other hand, is that we insist on making the glory of our predecessors a constant presence within our horizons, on rebuilding their ruins using brick upon brick of their preserved words and intended wisdom.

When dealing with fake quotations, we have no doubt that everything the greats of yore said is by definition right. Every mutation and straying from it, in words or intent, is not only undesirable but also dispensable. Our only collective historical and cultural task, it seems, is to safeguard our inherited legacy¹².

But the question isn’t whether Gandhi actually said “Be the change you wish to see in the world” (he didn’t) and whether his philosophy of social change is reflected in that particular emendation of his words (it isn’t)¹³.

The question is, having established the dubious provenance of that pairing of words and attribution, should we just toss the words into the trash heap? Should we condemn every instance of a fake quotation as a documented illegal? Or should we be choosing to cherish our fake quotations by putting them back in circulation to survive (or perish) their own cultural auditions under the attribution “Anonymous”?

If we can reverse our unquestioned reverence for the words of the ancients and engineer our own Enlightenment¹⁴, maybe the culture hacks who (knowingly) fake quotations would come to realise that we value the wisdom inherent in certain quotations, not the wisdom of only certain men and women. That instead of faking attributions for ephemeral and dubious glory, their words can stand a chance on their own.

And just maybe, someday, our future generations will come to say, “For most of history, Anonymous was an ordinary person with extraordinary wisdom.”¹⁵

Reference and Notes:
1. I first came across this quote in this tweet. Of course, it doesn’t mean this is its first recorded instance or its last.
2. This is the same Jalal-ud-din Rumi, a 13th century Persian mystic and poet, who is documented to have said: “Out beyond the world of ideas of wrong doing and right doing, there is a field. I will meet you there.”
3. The most well-known parody of a fake quotation on the internet remains, of course, the Abraham Lincoln line: “Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet.”
4. This piece by Louis Menad in The New Yorker (Notable Quotables) provides abundant examples.
5. To see an attribution hound at work, see this piece by Megan MacArdle on how she picked apart a compeling fake (Anatomy of a Fake Quotation).
6. I am joking, of course. Stuff like Megan MacArdle’s detective work (Anatomy of a Fake Quotation) and Snopes’ compendium of questionable quotes do us great service by ensuring we can be sure of what and whom we choose to quote.
7. They Never Said It: A Book of Fake Quotes, Misquotes, and Misleading Attributions is but one example.
8. This piece by Brian Morton in the NYT (Falser words were never spoke) provides a example of what it all entails.
9. Emma Green provides an interesting historical tour (Innovation: The History of a Buzzword) of what else an unabashedly positive word like innovation could have meant or implied in the past.
10. This is, of course, an Euro-centric view. The centuries of the European Dark Ages sit alongside an age of glorious accomplishments and intellectual enlightenment in the Islamic and Chinese worlds. For a quick and even-handed encapsulation of this period in history, watch John Green's Crash Course World History #14.
11. The right place to read about this is of course in histories of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. I, instead, read about it in John Gribbin’s “Science: A History”.
12. Probably an exaggeration, but only a slight one. The same forces are at work in our misplaced zeal to value and preserve our inherited conventions of language. (What is ‘Correct’ Language?)
13. This piece by Brian Morton in the NYT (Falser words were never spoke) provides the closest thing to the fake quote Gandhi said and what Gandhi would have meant, not just with his words (but also his deeds.)
14. In his 1784 essay 'What is Enlightenment?', Immanuel Kant writes, “Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one's understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another. Sapere Aude! [dare to know] "Have courage to use your own understanding!"--that is the motto of enlightenment.”
15. A deliberate misquote of a well-known Virginia Woolf line “For most of history, Anonymous was a woman." which itself is a misquote of her actual words, “I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.”
About the author:
Iqbal Mohammed is Head of Innovation & Strategy at a digital innovation agency serving the DACH and wider European markets. He is the winner of the WPP Atticus Award for Best Original Published Writing in Marketing & Communication.
You can reach him via email or Twitter.


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