Quoting is a delicate art. Depending on your preferences, you can clean up the grammar or elide a few words to make what remains pithier, but what you can never do – at least, not if you have any integrity – is present someone’s words in such a way that you misrepresent their opinions. However, recently I’ve noticed that the claim that a quote is taken out of context is becoming the last refuge of everyone from politicians to social media users trying to distance themselves from something they’ve said that happens to be inconvenient or embarrassing.
Probably, this defense has become popular because of the seriousness with which quoting out of context is viewed by academics and journalists. However, the distinction between legitimate and opportunistic users of the idea of context quickly becomes clear when you look at examples.
First, an example of someone actually quoting out of context. Five years ago, in an article on Linux.com, I wrote,”I’m not a great believer in the idea that women are less aggressive than or interact differently from men. Yet even I have to admit that most of the regulars on free software mailing lists for women are politer and more supportive than the average poster on general lists.”
In the comments, an anonymous poster wrote that he found himself “convinced that Bruce Byfield is single, has no daughters, and doesn’t have a close women friends. The fact of the matter is that (most) women interact differently both men do, in their interactions with both other women and men. If he doesn’t know this, he hasn’t spent much time around women.”
This comment, as another poster was quick to point out, focused entirely on the first sentence I wrote. Even then, he missed the nuance of “I’m not a great believer.” But, even more importantly, by stopping at the first sentence, he formed an entirely mistaken opinion of what I thought by ignoring the next sentence, which completed the thought I was expressing. Instead, he derided me for an opinion that I had never expressed, and made himself look like foolish rather than me.
By contrast, recently I wrote an article about how the priorities in GNOME, the free desktop used on Linux, appeared to have shifted. I quoted at length one member of the project who wrote during an online discussion that they were against allowing extensions that would alter the vision of the design team. I carefully mentioned that the discussion had taken place over a year ago, and went on to add that the member was now focusing on other matters, meaning to imply that they were no longer opposing the idea of extensions, and that their previous views no longer prevailed in the project.
The day after the article appeared, the person whose email I quote denounced me on Google+. I had quoted them out of context, they insisted. I should have asked them for their current view, and I was unprofessional because I didn’t. Yet when I asked them to explain exactly how I had misquoted them, they either would not or could not do so.
I never did get an explanation out of them. So far as they were concerned, I must have deliberately attacked them, and they were under no obligation to explain (although they were apparently quite willing to attack me, and to rant vaguely but ominously about the dangers of discussion on a public mailing list). I suspect that the person in question was now embarrassed by their former views, and was concerned about being associated with them. Perhaps their concern was that others might think they didn’t support the current policy.
My use of the quote had nothing out of context. It was clearly presented as a past view, contrasted with the present, and included several sentences in order to represent accurately the opinions expressed. But, whatever the exact reasons for the person’s reaction, the words “out of context” were a convenient form of denial. Never mind that they could not point to any misrepresentation – by savaging my reputation, they hoped to salvage theirs.
These two examples clearly show the difference between using the phrase “out of context” legitimately, and as a defense. In the first case, going to the original source quickly shows that the context has been misrepresented or misunderstood. In the second case, particulars are avoided for a generalized accusation, and the original discussion is deflected by a personal attack.
Fortunately, the response to cases like the second is exactly the same as for those like the first. In both circumstances, looking at the source immediately shows whether anything has been taken out of context or not. The real danger is when politicians and public figures claim that they were misquoted loudly enough that any methodical debunking of the claim is missed, and they are able to evade responsibility for their own words by launching a misleading counter-attack.