Understanding Intent and Context


Quotes, they’re the lovely little garnishes of language. They’re quick, witty, sharp and deliver entire thought processes in a matter of one or a few sentences. They’re great for provoking thought, getting your point across, and summing things up. Except that’s not the reason most people use them. Most people use them as a quick counterpoint, as the basis of an argument, and/or want to make it look like they’re intellectuals. Guilty as probably charged by anyone who knows me. We live in the day of the internet; where things like BrainyQuote, Twitter, Facebook, and forums exist. Web sites where quotes play a massive game of telephone and mouth breathing “intellectuals” to butcher and misuse quotes as they please. This is to be expected with something like the internet where communication is on mass to this degree. Not everyone will know the source of every quote and the broader implications of it. However in the age of the internet, where we can simple google search something do the research, this is inexcusable. Though seeing the blatant misuse of quotes is a nuance, there isn’t much significance to calling out misquoting; the tides of a debate won’t be swayed by a quote. Yet, there is a lot of misquoting and misinterpretation as to the larger implications of quotes. And when it’s the misquotation of a historical or important figure, the effects can be incredibly damaging. Sending a flurry of misinformation and harmful misperceptions.

First, there is Crop Misquoting. This is the intentional cutting out of one or more sentences from its larger work, with the intent of making it sound incriminating. It is then, either knowingly or unknowingly, spread out. You see this all the time with bigots and Conservatives when they misquote Martin Luther King Jr. This is damaging because it sends the wrong ideas, messages, and principals about, not only that person but also groups in society (past and present); and also sends misconceptions about events and history.

The second type of Misquotation is Larger Context Misquotation. This one is more complicated, as it’s more ambiguous, but also not, at the same time. Yet, still unforgivable, I’ll explain later. A while back I was scrolling through Twitter when I came across a news story about a government official (I don’t remember his name or his specific job, but it doesn’t matter) who had made a large budget cut to the education system. The politicians justification was, since “Socrates taught his students on a rock”. What was surprising about this was not the budget cut, but someone who came to the defense of the decision. The quote rang something like “the knowledge and ideas of the previous generations often hold back progression of current generations” – A Roman (he was actually a roman). This is a clear example of what I mean by Larger Contextual Misquoting. The quote was referring to how older generations hinder progress by influence. It couldn’t have been referring to the broader implications of an education system (because education systems only really became a thing in the last century) and the types of behaviors discussed in the quote don’t apply to set curriculums and people specifically trained in education. If he was responding to an article about the influences of and on out-of-touch politicians, then the quote would apply. That quote is not appropriate when talking about something with completely different functionings, behaviors, and systems. It’s important to know the circumstance of the provocative, insightful, and significant statements that are often the ones being quoted. Quotes are said under and alongside specific circumstances, ideology, implications, philosophies, behaviors, attitudes, relations, systems, and contexts’. Quotes are also meant to convey specific ideas, meanings, philosophies, logics, intentions, implications, in the context of (and in response to) all the previously mentioned specifics. When you use a quote in the wrong way and context, you rob it of its weight, significance and meaning. Let me give you an example; I will turn to a page in Cat’s Cradle and pull a random quote from it. Here we go: “What makes you think a writer isn’t a drug salesman?”. You see what I mean? Without knowing the attitudes and personality of the author and characters, in addition to the larger context, attitudes, tone, and systems surrounding the quote, you can’t properly discern the meaning, intent and implications from it.

Now some of you might be asking “well isn’t the meaning and implications up to the implications of the individual?” Yes, but also it isn’t. Like I said quotes are framed around specific circumstances and contexts’, and are said with specific intentions, implications, and ideas meant to be conveyed. Quotes are lucid, they are meant to say something and specific things. If we were talking about subtext in addition to the context of events in the work, and actions of characters, then yes the work as a whole and specific actions are up for interpretation (when looking at the work as a whole). When it comes to actual claims about something, however,  you can’t come up with your own conclusion because that is actual specific ideas being expressed blatantly. That is why it’s perfectly fine to come to your own conclusions on works like movies, books, television, games, comics etc., but cannot make up your own conclusion about something like an article.


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