Misattributing Wisdom


There’s a scene in a play I once saw – it might have been a play, or maybe it was a book – where one of the characters trots out the famous edict, “neither a borrower nor a lender be,” before finishing with a smug, “Shakespeare.” Quick as a flash the other character counters with, “Polonius”. If you’re unfamiliar with Hamlet, Polonius is a busybody, a “tedious old fool” and someone who is wrong in nearly everything he thinks or says. He’s the one who ends up getting stabbed while hiding behind a curtain (this is the definition of Shakespearean “comedy”). The point of the above scene is that people attribute to Shakespeare pearls of wisdom that, in context, often don’t mean what people think. Shakespeare was a writer, after all, a master story-teller, and he never spoke to us directly: all quotes attributed to Shakespeare are works of fiction, literally as well as semantically. Shakespeare very rarely gave us his own opinion and, genius though he was, his actual beliefs remain a mystery. Nevertheless, people persist in attributing wisdom to him every day.

I railed against this in a book I wrote years ago in which a character, who deals daily with paranormal phenomenon, contemplates traveling back in time to stop Shakespeare writing the immortal, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” line. At the time that quote annoyed me beyond reason because it was regularly used by metaphysical New Age types to defend their fatuous dribblings from attacks by real science. Now is not the time to get into exactly what’s wrong with that quote, so I’ll just say this: Hamlet, when he utters this, has just been visited by the ghost of his father who tells him that his uncle is sleeping with his mum. He’s a little unhinged by the whole affair.
Quotes are a sort of intellectual currency: pithy, didactic statements from famous people which give us just enough intellectual meat to garnish our mental val-au-vents. A good quote can bolster an argument, particularly if the original speaker was himself quite perceptive. As much as a quote is a bon mot, like any currency it only has value if it’s backed by something tangible. A quote by itself isn’t enough: you may know that Einstein said, “God does not play dice with the universe”, but if you think that Einstein was talking about an actual God actually playing dice, you’re way off base and are likely to come unstuck if someone probes a little deeper. For the record: Einstein was talking about quantum mechanics which, under the Copenhagen Interpretation, regards some events as random chance. Einstein didn’t accept this (most wise physicists don’t): he argued that reality was by definition deterministic because of the requirements of causality. No god. No dice. Using a quote like this to express a religious reverence is like using a Genghis Khan quote in defense of free speech.
For many people, as in my opening example, a quote is a shortcut to knowledge, rather than a product of it. This was explored fully and, in my mind hilariously, in the recent internet storm in a teacup: the Taylor Swift Pinterest debacle.
An exceptionally bright Pinterest user (if that’s not an oxymoron) had the idea to make images of Taylor Swift and inspirational quotes, which were then quickly shared across social media. It was only when people took a closer look that they realized their mistake: the quotes on the pictures didn’t originate from Taylor Swift: they were, instead, quotes from Adolf Hitler. Like the notorious social experiment The Third Wave , in which schoolkids were quickly suckered into a bizarre fascistic environment through their own behaviour, misattributed Hitler quotes were infecting the social media sphere. It was hilarious and very clever and illustrated that, in the absence of wisdom, people will rely on a quote.
Of course, this being the internet, the rebound was itself awesome. All at once pictures of Hitler emblazoned with Taylor Swift quotes began to surface, which was itself equally funny. My own personal favourite is below:
If this debacle illustrates anything, it’s that people would rather have a pithy statement from an authority figure than do some thinking for themselves. But, of course, we knew that: the whole of human history illustrates that people would rather be handed a statement, or an edict, or a headline, rather than have to do the hard work. It’s how religion operates- the bible is the biggest misattributed quote of all – but it does illustrate a peculiar human weakness. That weakness can be, and often is, exploited in use against us, and only the more obvious examples are pointed up. Not too long ago images like these were making the rounds:
If you can’t see what’s wrong with that, nobody can help you.
Unfortunately we live in an age of soundbites. Faced with the largest body of knowledge ever collated by man – the internet – most of us would rather have a tweeted quote or a dubious fact than solid information. It’s truly unusual to live in a time when, rather than expanding our knowledge base, people are concentrating on reducing it. The fundamental difference between pithy statements and actual wisdom is subtle enough that it foxes nearly everybody. A classic example of this is Stephen Fry, the British comedian, God of twitter and all-round charming man. Stephen Fry is, it must be said, awfully funny. He’s clever, too. Is he as clever as everybody thinks he is? No, and he rather casually admits this in his autobiographies. His reputation for intelligence, he notes, comes down to his top-drawer accent and his ability to trot out a quote – in fact, he has an encyclopedic knowledge of tidbits. His admitting this didn’t stop a newspaper describing him as having “a brain the size of Kent”, and he’s regularly held up as an example of a genius. Now, I wouldn’t want to disparage Stephen – he is awfully nice – but genius he is not. As Lady Bracknall says in The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), “we live in an age of surfaces”. Plus ca change.
 I’m not saying we should be knowledgeable of everything – how could we be – but it would be nice if the first person in the chain could tell the difference between Hitler and Taylor Swift. In such an environment, as Mark Twain noted, “a lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes”. I’m also not saying we shouldn’t use quotes. What I am saying is that we should use them a little more sparingly. As I noted up there, quotes are a currency, and they depend on a backing of real thought. You have to have intellectual gold in your vaults for quotes to mean anything. What is unfortunate is that we live in an era where bad intellectual currency is held up as the gold standard.
And please don’t quote me on any of this.

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