Errors of Attribution


So Osama is dead, that’s cool. The chants of “USA” in the streets afterwards, as if we had just won the World Cup, maybe not as cool. Some people reacted to this by posting to their Facebook or Twitter the following quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.:

I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.

Seemingly appropriate. The problem was that Dr. King didn’t say that, or at least didn’t say the first sentence of it (which, in many cases, was the only line that people actually shared with the world, attributing it to him). It turned out to be perfectly innocent, a case of dropped quotation marks after what someone had meant only to be an introductory line became merged into the quote itself.

I saw it over and over again in my friends’ status updates in the days following the bin Laden erasure. Everyone was passing it on. So how did so many thousands or millions of people paste in a fake MLK quote to their profiles? It was simply trust in others. If my pal Roger posted this as his status, surely it has to be a legitimate quote, surely he checked it out, so I’m going to repost it as my status without bothering to vet it.

As a people, we’re not big on checking our work, on proofing and verifying. And it’s how we get suckered every time. The MLK quote was a benign falsehood, but there are instances every day of considerably more maleficent mistruths being passed on as truth. Everyone swooned over Greg Mortenson’s account of building a school in Pakistan in Three Cups of Tea, but the details went unchallenged until very recently, when Jon Krakauer exposed a number of false statements in the book, not to mention the fact that Mortenson’s foundation was mismanaging the money it was supposed to be using to build more schools. How about everything we swallowed from Stephen Glass or Jayson Blair? Or that a-hole James Frey (who is now making a tremendous profit from yet another dubious endeavor)?

We here at TEAL have been recommending that you check your work before releasing it to the public, as part of our typo eradication mission. Part of that should also be verifying its factual truth. And you can quote the League on that.

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2 Responses to Errors of Attribution

  1. The two most common misattributions are to the Bible and Alice in Wonderland, so any time you think you’re quoting one of those, check again.

  2. Jeff Deck says:

    Not to mention Yogi Berra. Or Yogi Berra quoting the Bible or Alice in Wonderland!

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