The Atlantic looked into the supposed MLK quote that popped up on twitter and facebook and seemed quite fitting for what a lot of people were feeling after the death of Osama Bin Laden. And deemed it a fake.
However, what it appears is that MLK did say everything but the first line. The rest seems to be from his Strength to Love, but the problem is that MLK revised and reused a lot of his speeches and the later part of the quote appears in speeches given in 1964, and 1968.
The question, to me, is what makes a quote fake? The first line, while not a direct cite-able quote from King, has, even including the part about” the thousands of precious lives,” while it doesn’t look like he ever wrote the phrase down, has corollaries from other King speeches, and what could have happened is that somebody took a summary of a paragraph about the deaths of civilians in Vietnam, and placed it into the context of an older quote.
What is of interest is that another quote, about reading obituaries, attributed to Mark Twain also made the Twitter/Facebook rounds.
hapter 10 he writes:from Clarence Darrow’s 1932 book “A Story of my Life,” where in c
I have never killed any one, but I have read some obituary notices with great satisfaction.
Twain probably has, and would love that he is probably the person to whom people wrongly attribute the most quotes. Ben Franklin is up there, and their pension for one liners and their prolific output of sayings make them believable quotees. Perhaps what has made this MLK quote something of a deal on the internet is that King carries a higher rhetorical weight with his name, and that if thousands could readily believe he said something he did not, this could lead to some problems.
Disinfo had an article earlier last week about how facts no longer matter in media discourse, presumably they’ve been absent from politics for a long while. In the article they quote conservative John Hawkins who quotes JFK:
No matter how big the lie; repeat it often enough and the masses will regard it as the truth.
I looked this quote up because I thought for sure this was a Joseph Goebbles quote. However, Goebbles said:
If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.
I looked and looked and could not find a citation for either one of the quotes. The Goebbles quote was most likely a summarization of the “Big Lie” technique Hitler sets out in the 10th chapter of Mein Kampf vol 1.
A variation of the quote is also attributed to Lenin and William James, where it’s quoted as:
There’s nothing so absurd that if you repeat it often enough, people will believe it.
Once again I can’t find anyone who cites a source for any of these; James, most famous for his religious phenomenology, seems a bit obscure for having quotes mis-attributed to him, to the point that he may be a possible believable source.
The problem though is that a quote is a snippet; it can be taken out of context, edited, redacted, and taken from many different points of origin. Often the lines preceding or following it either contradict it, challenge it, or complicate it. You could get the speaker correctly attributed, but the quote itself would be far less in context than a mis-attributed quote, like the MLK quote, which isn’t correct, but contextually pretty close.
One of the most commonly misconstrued quotes, and a good example of this, comes from the New Testament, in John 5:39 (KJV) where Jesus says:
Search the Scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me.
This seems to be a nice little quote that commands us to read the scriptures, though it feels a bit awkward, but then again so does a lot of stuff in the Bible. In context, what Christ is saying is quite the opposite. Jesus has just healed a sick man on the Sabbath and has been attacked by his religiously zealous critics who are confronting him for violating the Law of Moses. Jesus essentially is saying: You think reading a book will save your souls but I’m the one who gave you the law. If you get your nose out of those old books that you think and actually lived the law you’d see I’m doing what you’re supposed to be doing.
It may well be that quotes tell us more about the person who receives them. A phenomenological meting of a simple thought that is planted in one’s mind which interacts with all of the other related thoughts and ideas and experiences that one has with the single idea of the quote. But the problem here is that, like everything else in America today, it lends itself to a personalized interpretation. It only aligns itself to what the mind has already decided to believe or experience. At least that’s the quote proper. Perhaps the person to which the quote is attributed acts as the counter balance, to either harmonize with or create dissonance with the context of the quote as it meets the mind of the person receiving the quote. A dissonant quote, true or not, might get the person to examine their experience with the idea, and the experiences they have associated with the supposed speaker, be it truly or falsely.
In the end its not so much whether the idea, the quote, or the attributed speaker is true or not. Lives have probably been changed by misreading, mis-attributed quotes, or misunderstanding the context of an idea. It is in the action where the words are made manifest. Otherwise its just words on a page.