Authorial Intrusion: Cherrypicking

What happens when a highly respected author and Wharton professor takes your words out of context to suit his point?

That didn’t happen to me, but it is a common problem in today’s cut-and-paste, Wikipedia world. Most often I think this is unintentional. Authors, researchers, and journalists are rushed to publish. They (or more likely their interns) find a cool quote that dovetails nicely with their position, but there’s a deadline and no time to consider the intention of the author’s words. Or the author is long gone so his or her words get muddled as in a game of telephone. How often has poor Mark Twain been misinterpreted?

On the other hand, sometimes it’s easier for an author or journalist to look the other way, to pretend that quote really does work to his or her advantage. If I just take these words out here and cut off the end of this quote with a few ellipses, wham-o, look how this perfectly supports my point. It’s not that the quote is wrong, it has been cherrypicked, plucked of original meaning.

This week, Adam Grant, aforementioned Wharton business school professor and author of Originals and Give and Take, did just that. His op/ed published in The New York Times, “Unless You’re Oprah, Why ‘Be Yourself’ Is Terrible Advice,” shared a snippet of a quote from Brené Brown thereby changing the meaning of her words.

Look how easy it is for this to occur. Here is the sentence in its entirety from the op/ed piece linked above:

As Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, defines it, authenticity is “the choice to let our true selves be seen.”

And now you, the reader, believe that Brené Brown is in agreement with Adam Grant’s point that being authentic gives people license to say whatever pops into their minds, be it hurtful or antagonistic.

But Brené Brown’s full definition of authenticity is quite long and nuanced. Understandably she took umbrage at Grant’s oversimplified, soundbite definition. She wrote a response in a LinkedIn post. (And he commented on her post!)

Grant pulled nine words out of context. Why? Because using the central part of my definition of authenticity would have bankrupted his entire argument that authenticity is the mindless spewing of whatever you’re thinking regardless of how your words affect other people.

Authenticity

 

I’m not standing in favor or against the substance of the discussion, which in itself is quite compelling. I’m pointing out how easy it is to be mislead, even by a well-meaning author. A shade here or there. Words plucked for the sake of brevity. A rushed fact-checker. It can all lead to a misrepresentation of someone’s beliefs and values.  Worse, readers rarely witness the follow-up, so they’re left with the wrong impression.

It’s interesting that the conversation of setting boundaries around authenticity has led to a conversation about what it means to set authentic boundaries in writing.

Have you ever been misquoted? Have you ever been misled by a quote? 

Have a great weekend, everyone!

 

 

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11 comments

  1. A rushed fact checker? What is this fact checker of which you speak? You must live in the fictional planet The New Yorker.

    Regarding the context, I don’t know which is worse — when people do it on purpose or when people are too stupid to understand the context of the original. This has happened to me with my work pieces. The most recent in which I was clearly making a point in favor of TV advertising but a bunch of clowns took a sarcastic line out of context and quoted me on blogs and on Twitter to say I was arguing against TV. I called one of them out and he was like for being either intentionally misleading, guilty of not reading anything beyond the sentence or just plain stupid. His response was basically “Whatever, I was trying to make a point.” So basically it was all of the above.

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  2. ‘Words plucked for the sake of brevity.’ — That about sums up what I’m feeling lately. I used to consider economy in writing as one of my highest creative ideals but I worry we’ve gone too far. We don’t have the attention span for anything long or complex so we tolerate so much misleading bullet-point research.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree with you there. I was thinking that maybe some of the blame lies with the consumer. Readers insist on quick turnaround and bite-sized blurbs. The rush to publish makes writers cut corners and produce half-hearted attempts without due diligence.

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  3. I was misquoted in news stories back when I was practicing law, and it is infuriating. Even if you try to get a retraction you can’t undo the damage. Culturally we tend to treat anything in print as credible and reliable, and as you note, readers rarely pay attention to the follow up.

    Nowadays a misquote can take on a life of its own. I’ve researched the origin of some bogus quotes and found them repeated on hundreds of websites and dozens of books. They’d spread so far and wide that they’d taken on apparent authenticity, even though a little effort would have shown no original source.

    We also live in a Twitteresque age. Few want to take the time for nuance and complexity. We prefer sound bites, whether they are fair to the original meaning or not.

    Great post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Isn’t that the truth, Bill?! A misquote can sure take on a life of its own. It just perpetuates itself through repeated retellings until it becomes the stuff of legend with just a grain of truth. (Kind of like those movies that are “based on a true story.”)

      I’m seeing some consumer interest in longform journalism and I hope it gains some traction soon!

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    1. At the most basic level, I think they agree with each other. (It’s a compelling point!) The way he took her quote out of context did change the contextual meaning and made it seem as if she was not in agreement with his larger point. I’ll be interested to know your take on it too!

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