Quick hits via Twitter

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Misquote wildfire

Just a quick note about something I found interesting:

In the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death, we of course saw a flood of comments on Twitter and Facebook. Most people felt relieved at his death and happy for that closure. But some also felt ambivalent or guilty about their reactions, not liking the idea of celebrating someone’s death, even bin Laden’s. Riding on the heels of that, I saw two quotes being passed around a lot:

"I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy." — Martin Luther King, Jr.


"I've never wished a man dead, but I have read some obituaries with great pleasure." — Mark Twain

Both of these were interesting ways of dealing with that ambivalence or with discomfort at seeing the general Schaudenfreude at bin Laden’s death. They were so representative of the world’s feelings that they were copied and pasted and forwarded hundreds of times.

The catch? The Martin Luther King, Jr. quote didn’t come from Martin Luther King, Jr. And the Mark Twain quote? Not from Mark Twain.

The King quote seems to have been made up on the spot, although it was often used to introduce an actual quote from King. You can read more about that in The Atlantic. The Twain quote came from Clarence Darrow instead, but was altered to better fit the situation. That was covered on The Atlantic Wire.

Correcting the attribution of the quotes doesn’t change their sentiment. After all, the quotes did a good job of representing the emotions of hundreds of people. But maybe it does diminish their impact if you attribute the first one to “some guy” and the second to “a paraphrase of Clarence Darrow.”

The lesson? I’m not sure. I don’t want to get all preachy about always double-checking the facts before passing something along. You’ve heard that already. Everybody’s received a forwarded message that’s been debunked by Snopes. And in these cases, I think the sentiment of the quotes was more important than the truth of their origin. But maybe let this be a tickler in your brain: Even if you see it in print, it ain’t necessarily so.

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