Context & Abstractions
July 26, 2014Posted by on
Of all the ills that human hearts endure,
How small that part which laws may cause or cure.
The above introduces T.E. Utley’s 1968 essay ‘What laws may cure’, writing: ‘Those lines, widely and falsely attributed to Samuel Johnson and in fact written by Oliver Goldsmith‘, which I’m sure was an apodictic addition. In 1968 he would have relied on hard copy references to validate the source of his quote. Even so, both hard copy and the global resources of internet now available, can make any research a circuitous task. At best, the originator of a quote may be found but this does not necessarily validate its source, as may be the case with Johnson and Goldsmith.
As the internet increasingly evolves into a global propaganda machine, it is deliberately seeded with disinformation. Any claim represented as the truth should be capable of validation, yet truth seeking is usually nothing more than an exercise in finding a source that supports an already formed opinion. Both the professional media and the public share culpability in their blatant use of truisms presented as aphorisms. These sound-bites created from abstractions, have little regard to any truths behind their origin. There is nothing new in the use of contextomy, or the fallacy of quoting out of context, as a propaganda tool, but its ever increasing persuasive use in the media and the on internet becomes a challenge to us all.
In the introduction to her autobiography The Downing Street Years (see here) Margaret Thatcher quoted the former Labour Cabinet minister Douglas Jay, writing: ‘The gentleman in Whitehall really does know better what is good for the people than the people know themselves’. In his 1937 book The Socialist Case, he had actually written: ‘In the case of nutrition and health, just as in the case of education, the gentleman in Whitehall really does know better what is good for people than the people know themselves.’ This sentence, reduced to the aphorism used by Margaret Thatcher, a contextomy of what Douglas Jay actually wrote (and believed), has now become stock Conservative propaganda. Margaret Thatcher was to find out how contextomy is the propagandist’s tool when, fifty years later, she remarked that ‘There is no such thing as society‘. The remark was immediately taken out of context and she was forced into an elucidation (see here). It was too late, the remark is now a stock aphorism, a contextomy of what she said, which is now used by socialists to malign Margaret Thatcher and Conservative policy.
Whatever the originator may intend to imply, written or spoken words becomes abstractions to those intent on inferring something else. Whether or not there is any deliberate intent to induce an emotional decision is of little consequence. The inferences made, regardless of any correlation with the originator’s intent, invariably lead to conclusions presented as facts in specious arguments. However, facts (fallacious or not) rarely influence the hearts and minds of those already attached to opposing truisms.
It is common to hear calls for ‘the facts’. The appealing simplicity of the word ‘fact’ is instrumental in its frequent use as a persuasive device, but it is a deceptive siren call if you really want to change someone’s mind.