Recently, Australian senator Cory Bernardi was caught quoting a neo-Nazi on his Twitter account. He just didn’t realise it at the time. He thought it was Voltaire.
The quote was “To know who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticise” which might seem self-evident to those living in modern mediaeval theocracies, hypersensitive monarchies, hypernationalist superpowers and single-party states; but it is, unfortunately, incomplete.
It actually comes from a chap called Kevin Strom (a neo-Nazi convicted of possessing child porn) who used it as an intro to a rant about homosexuality, the irreverent and irreligious, people who aren’t patriotic, and rap music. Naturally, that gives the quote a rather different meaning. Alone, it seems like a worthy political aphorism. In context, it is the whine of someone who doesn’t like people he disagrees with but feels he can’t make a big deal out of it.
On a related note, another misattributed quote that (re-)surfaced in my social media feeds recently was “Why do people say ‘grow some balls’? Balls are weak and sensitive. If you wanna be tough, grow a vagina. Those things can take a pounding.” When attributed to nonagenarian comedian and actress Betty White, it comes across as a sort of humorous feminist affirmation. When one realises it was actually part of the routine of a male US stand-up called Sheng Wang, the impression one might get from it is bound to shift slightly.
Does it matter?
When I did improv* and led workshops, I told people that an idea is not responsible for the person who thought of it.
For me, the best quotes are the ones which work, regardless of who says it. I think Sheng Wang’s line qualifies. The Kevin Strom line does not, because it is taken out of context.
It’s the same fallacy committed by those desperate, blinkered idiots who think the world was created exactly as described by bronze-age Hebrew mythology; they focus on the first line from a paragraph in Charles Darwin’s Origin Of The Species, but ignore the rest of it:
To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree. Yet reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each grade being useful to its possessor, can be shown to exist; if further, the eye does vary ever so slightly, and the variations be inherited, which is certainly the case; and if any variation or modification in the organ be ever useful to an animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, can hardly be considered real.
The first line suggests Darwin thought the eye could not have evolved because it is so complex. The rest of the paragraph is Darwin’s way of saying that it did, very slowly, and very gradually, over many generations.
When using a quote, it does help to know the context of it. And for the sake of accuracy, if you’re going to attribute it to someone, make sure you’ve got the right person.
“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
– Evelyn Beatrice Hall, The Friends of Voltaire
*When I produced the improv show, I freely and happily took lines and press quotes from reviews out of context to help sell tickets. A three star review and a two star review were placed right next to each other to look like a five-star review; and I salvaged a few positive phrases from the perpetually-underwhelmed Kate Copstick to make it look like she was recommending us. Trust no one, especially when they’re trying to sell you something.