Message in a human body

There is of course the well-known motif of the message in a bottle, thrown out into the ocean with the hope that it may reach the right hands – any hands, actually. But now I’m thinking more of messages that are alive just like a human body. Take them out of their context, just like a chunk of a stomach, and they will die. Messages don’t necessarily die like organisms in the way of ceasing to function – to communicate; no – they may simply die in that they are replaced by something else, which the original speaker didn’t mean at all.

Statements are very often picked up rashly by the media or by politicians and instantly converted into outrageous ideas. Let’s take a simple, positive sentence: “The EU has reached a consensus on Greece.”

This sound pretty much like praise. But quite often those who quote “forget” to quote the whole sentence – in this case it may be: “It’s amazing that the EU has reached a consensus on Greece after all“, or “I hope the EU has finally reached a consensus on Greece” etc. – in this case a sentence is quoted without indicating what the speaker really meant by it, or how he felt about it.

Other times those who quote tend to pick the sentence out of the speaker’s longer statement: “It’s amazing that the EU has reached a consensus on Greece after all, but it’s nothing compared to what the Greeks themselves will need to handle in the next few months and years…” – in this case a sentence is quoted without indicating what the main point of the speaker really was (here, the Greeks, and not the EU).

More subtle and perverse is when a quote is made ignoring the whole, broader argument or dialogue. For example: “I think the EU is doing a great job! Look at the amazing consensus on the Greek issue!” “Hmmm, well, if you ask me – it may be amazing that the EU has reached a consensus on Greece after all, but it’s nothing in fact compared to what the Greeks themselves will need to handle in the next few months and years. I think the EU would have done a much better job if they’d set up the whole euro-framework on sound foundations in the first place!” – in this case the sentence was quoted creating the impression that the speaker supports the EU, when in fact the overall point of view is critical. What he does isn’t praise the EU, but sympathise with the Greeks and criticise the EU for faulty planning.

The most serious mystification is when a quote is made ignoring not (just) the whole argument of the speaker, but the real context when he pronounced himself. If the statement above was made in a press conference it sounds different, and carries a different weight, than if it was made on the beach as a way of making small talk.

The other day I watched a talk-show where a protestant priestess that has become very popular in Germany was criticised for dabbling in politics and for proposing simplistic and all-too-sentimental solutions to “serious” political problems. Among other things, she had allegedly claimed that “we could sit and pray together with the Talibans” in Afghanistan, instead of fighting with them.

The priestess explained that the political statements she had made were part of her sermons, which are supposed to conclude by linking the biblical text to the immediate reality. Dabbling in politics would mean making public statements to the press or within large social events. In this case, her political statements were quoted ignoring the overall real-life context when she had pronounced herself. She also explained her suggestion on the Talibans as a reply to someone else who had been cynical enough to say “so what would you expect us to do, sit and pray with the Talibans?” – to which she had replied “We might as well sit and pray with the Talibans and it would still make more sense than imposing peace with the machine-guns”.

In this case, her statement was quoted ignoring the general context – the dialogue, and of course the main point that she was making – namely, even a far-fetched solution of sitting and praying with the Talibans would still be more sensible than warfare.

So take good care of what you quote – just like surgeons need to take good care what they extract from their patient’s bodies, to make sure that the whole has nothing to suffer, and that the part extracted still represents the whole it belongs to.

And over to you: are you sure that all the statements quoted in your media, by your politicians, by your friends etc, stay true to what the original speaker really meant? Were your words ever quoted in a distorting manner?

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