09/22/12

Taking words out of context


Out of contextCouncil, along with the media, the auditor general, the CBC, our MP and MPP,and a few others, were recently sent a letter complaining about council’s decision to build new, year-round recreational facilities without raising taxes.

Fair enough. Everyone has the right to write letters. We’re open to public criticism, even after the issue has been decided, contracts signed, and council (and most of the town) has moved on. You can read the letter on the EEU.

The letter contains two quotes – both by dead Americans – to open and close the letter.

Because I am a bit of a quote-authenticity fanatic (see my other blog posts about quotations and mis-attributions, here and in the archives), I immediately did some online sleuthing to see if they were actual quotes, not the usual internet/Facebook misquote. I also wanted to learn under what context they were written. I naturally assumed the letter writer chose them for some relevance to the issues raised in the body of the letter.

Here’s the first one:

“It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself.” Thomas Jefferson

Yes, indeed, to the writer’s credit, that was written by Thomas Jefferson. However, it is significantly out of its original context here. It comes from Query VII of Jefferson’s book, Notes on the State of Virginia (1781, revised 1782).

Thomas Jefferson wrote his book in response to several questions about Virgina posed by a “Foreigner of Distinction.” Query VII is a response to the question, “The different religions received into that state?”

Here’s a fuller quote – not all of his response by any means – from Jefferson’s reply to that question. The line that was taken out of context is highlighted. You can see that Jefferson’s comments were made in relation to how science (reason) was treated by religious authorities in historical times:

“Government is just as infallible too when it fixes systems in physics. Galileo was sent to the inquisition for affirming that the earth was a sphere: the government had declared it to be as flat as a trencher, and Galileo was obliged to abjure his error. This error however at length prevailed, the earth became a globe, and Descartes declared it was whirled round its axis by a vortex. The government in which he lived was wise enough to see that this was no question of civil jurisdiction, or we should all have been involved by authority in vortices. In fact, the vortices have been exploded, and the Newtonian principle of gravitation is now more firmly established, on the basis of reason, than it would be were the government to step in, and to make it an article of necessary faith.

“Reason and experiment have been indulged, and error has fled before them. It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself. Subject opinion to coercion: whom will you make your inquisitors? Fallible men; men governed by bad passions, by private as well as public reasons. And why subject it to coercion? To produce uniformity. But is uniformity of opinion desireable? No more than of face and stature. Introduce the bed of Procrustes then, and as there is danger that the large men may beat the small, make us all of a size, by lopping the former and stretching the latter. Difference of opinion is advantageous in religion.”

To me, the telling points come later in this excerpt: Jefferson’s comment about the coercion of public opinion by fallible men (referring to the fallibility of government or church to determine a question outside its demesne), and the undesirability of uniformity of opinion (referring to the church’s insistence in uniformity of belief in the face of such challenges).

Both might be considered somewhat relevant to politics, but were not chosen, perhaps because they might be construed as unflattering to the cause of the writer.

Jefferson’s book – his only work published in his lifetime – is a rambling commentary on the State of Virginia, religion, law, reason, morality, geography, trade, faith, science, agriculture and politics. His words have nothing to do with Canada, Ontario, Collingwood, or municipal recreation. Canada barely gets a mention in this book – in reference to the height of Niagara Falls.

Does the writer draw some connection between Galileo and the Inquisition, and Collingwood Council and a swimming pool? Adams might have some fun with that on his Eastend Underground blog, but I struggle to see the connection. Perhaps I’m too close to the issue to see such metaphorical relationships.

The full text can be read here: avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/jeffvir.asp

Jefferson also wrote (in Query VI) what strikes me as more relevant to the debate:

“Ignorance is preferable to error; and he is less remote from the truth who believes nothing, than he who believes what is wrong.”

To be fair, he was writing about the origin of the then-mysterious fossil seashells in limestone, not about ice pads and swimming pools. However, that again might have been turned back on the writer, so perhaps it was also ignored for chance of being misunderstood.

My favourite Jefferson line from that book is also from Query VI:

“Our quadrupeds have been mostly described by Linnaeus and Mons. de Buffon. Of these the Mammoth, or big buffalo, as called by the Indians, must certainly have been the largest.”

This, I realize, may have equally small relevance to recreational facilities, but calling a mammoth a “big buffalo” does sound swell. I’m sure I can find a use for that some day.

Let’s move on.

The second quote is this:

“Whenever men take the law into their own hands, the loser is the law. And when the law loses, freedom languishes – Robert Kennedy”

Again, the writer was correct: it was actually written by Robert F. Kennedy. But I had to find out when and why. That took a bit more work, because the entire text it was gleaned from is not online in one place (unless it is sequestered in Google Books). However, enough of it is extant that I could piece together a significant portion, and appreciate his intent.

Robert – Bobby – Kennedy was the US Attorney General in 1961. He spoke these quoted words in an address to the Joint Defence Appeal of the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, Chicago, July 21, 1961. That speech was a comment on the evils of segregation, then being challenged in the US courts and on the streets of the southern states. These excerpted lines are in particular reference to the actions of the state police who were beating and jailing the Freedom Riders (anti-segregation activists) in Alabama.

You can learn more about that speech and about the civil rights movement in a book called, The Politics Of Injustice: The Kennedys, The Freedom Rides, And The Electoral Consequences of Moral Compromise, by David Niven: buy it on Amazon.ca

Civil Rights protestIt’s a fascinating period: the Cold War, the Civil Rights movement, the beatniks, the Kennedy-Nixon debates, the Berlin Wall, Khrushchev, the Avro Arrow,the Diefenbaker-Pearson debates, the Space Race…. Although I was young then, I still remember the TV news showing the marches and the protests. I remember rather fondly the folk music of the day. However, I would hesitate to equate the Freedom Riders – who put their lives on the line to end a social injustice in America – with a protest against an ice rink. I am quite sure we did not engage the dogs or the water cannons on the protesters, even though they were demanding higher taxes.

In that same speech, Kennedy said,

“My faith is that Americans are not an inert people. My conviction is that we are rising as a people to confront the hard challenges of our age-and that we know that the hardest challenges are often those within ourselves. My confidence is that, as we strive constantly to meet the exacting standard of our national tradition, we will liberate a moral emery within our nation which will transform America’s role and America’s influence throughout the world-and that upon this release of energy depends the world’s hope for peace, freedom and justice everywhere.”

See here. Kennedy was speaking about the injustice of the segregation that kept African-Americans from enjoying the same rights that their white counterparts in the south enjoyed (like being able to vote, attend university, eat in any restaurant). Kennedy was a very vocal advocate for civil rights. Canada, on the other hand, had civil rights, and shared none of the social unrest around this issue.

Puzzled lookI don’t recall that Kennedy ever turned his oratory skills on the issue of municipal swimming pools, but I have not read all of his speeches. I just know this speech was not about them. Without that context to link them, I’m sorry, but I just can’t see the relevance of this quote.

If we’re going to pull phrases out of context, I would prefer to use this one from the same speech, noted above:

“Americans are not an inert people. My conviction is that we are rising.”

Like the lines used in the letter, it has nothing to do with Canada, municipal politics, or swimming pools, but it sounds like something you can have fun with. What’s life without a sense of humour, eh?

Kennedy made another speech to the B’nai B’rith in Chicago, in October, 1963. You can read it here. It’s quite powerful – again it’s mostly about freedom and civil rights. But like all of his speeches I’ve read, it has nothing whatsoever to do with Collingwood or municipal process.

I digress. The issue is about using words taken out of context as inspirational quotes, or to ascribe some credibility to an argument. When readers realize neither quotation is relevant to the issue, it makes you wonder why they were chosen. Without contextual relevance, where is the meaning? That’s a question wise readers will ask, and they may extend it to the rest of the letter.

Jefferson and Kennedy made many wise, pithy comments in their lifetimes, and deserve our respect and recognition for their lives and their wisdom. That doesn’t mean it’s appropriate to take their words out of context for your own agenda.
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PS. The answers to the questions posed in that letter can be read here: here, here and here. You can also watch Rogers Cable 53 for a re-run of the council meeting where our CAO, Mr. Houghton, made his public presentation explaining the process and how staff arrived at a recommendation (which was not provided to the local media, however). All questions have been answered. Many times over. There are no more answers because the town, and council cannot continue to say the same thing over and over.