Sometimes it’s funny when something is taken out of context. For example, I have this weird ability to walk by just when someone is saying something that’s absolutely hilarious when you don’t know what that person is talking about (and sometimes even when you do).
When you walk by just as someone says, “Hey, at least the funeral home got some use out of that trebuchet,” or “it was like slow-dancing with a greased pig,” you know it’s gonna be a weird day. OK, the trebuchet thing was me, but what do you expect when someone tells me that an obit included the phrase “catapulted into heaven?”
It’s not so funny, though, when someone takes something you said or did, strips it of all context, then uses it to smear you. It’s something that happens all the time in politics, business, personal life … just about any area in which you can be made to look bad (or sometimes, on the flip side, far better than you are).
As far as I’m concerned, it’s just another way to lie, but it’s become standard operating procedure for many people.
Whether it’s an unflattering photo of a president that is simply a frozen moment in time or a comment sliced and diced to make a specific point, it’s more important than ever to be more discerning about the information you take in. What was happening before and after that action or those words? Is there meaning that’s been stripped out by whoever selected that particular bit of information? And, most importantly, do they have an agenda?
There’s usually much more to the story, and many times laziness and partisanship keep us from digging deeper. The context in which something was said or done often makes all the difference in comprehension. The C-SPAN video of that certain salute, for example, reveals that, yes, it was a bit sloppy, but it was also caught in progress and was one of a succession of rapid-fire salutes and handshakes with service members. No one will be perfect at every moment, and a single photo doesn’t always give the whole story. Unless that other president really doesn’t know how doors work …
Quote-mining, or contextomy (selectively excerpting words from a quote), and other out-of-context shenanigans seem most prevalent in politics, but happen just as readily in religion, science and other areas. Much of the time it’s used to advance certain arguments, but such use is often a false appeal to authority or nothing more than a straw man and highly questionable … as well as more than a little lazy. Sure, applaud the creativity it takes to come up with such specious arguments, but call it out and don’t encourage more of the same disingenuousness.
Yes, sometimes it’s unintentional and caused by a misunderstanding of what was said. However, in the worlds of politics and movie-review blurbs in advertising—as well as hot-button issues like abortion and evolution/creationism—it appears to be mostly intentional … though the perpetrators would likely never admit it.
And when someone says he was taken out of context, give him the benefit of a doubt, but check the actual context before deciding. Sometimes people are just trying to cover their backsides.
More than a few celebrities and public figures have tried to backtrack on some inflammatory or embarrassing thing that they’ve said or done by saying they were taken out of context. Some, though, even in context, don’t fare much better.
Cee Lo Green’s recent backhanded apology for a tweet claiming there is no such thing as rape when someone is unconscious probably did him more harm than good, especially considering his downward spiral of late. More than a few people in Arkansas are still ticked about the half-assed show he gave during Riverfest this year, so sympathy for him here will be hard to find.
If you’re lucky, the out-of-context situations you’ll encounter more of will be of the humorous variety.
We’ve all heard or seen something out of context that, maybe for no other reason, just cracks us up (I can’t see broccoli without thinking of Dana Carvey). For a lot of people on Tumblr and other sites, it’s random comic book panels. Here are a few that got me laughing.
And then there are these gems from OutofContextScience.com:
“Since they happened to have some skulls lying around … they filled it with 1,400 grams of ground beef.”
This quote, from a story about how forensic pathologists determine a person’s time of death using insects (further details wouldn’t pass the breakfast test), is a non sequitur for the ages, sure to scare off annoying hangers-on at a party.
“It took me a couple of months to make peace with this idea that I was going to take somebody’s brain or an animal’s brain and turn it into soup.”
No, not a relative of Jeffrey Dahmer or Ed Gein, to my knowledge; just a neuroscience researcher trying to count the number of neurons in the average brain. The estimate was 86 billion.
“So the cats are really just a drop in the ocean.”
What? Did these people not know that most cats don’t like water that much? OK, really, it’s from a story about a veterinary journal article documenting a few cases of animal-to-human transmission of bovine tuberculosis in the United Kingdom by nine cats (which were said to likely have contracted it from infected wildlife). Dogs, pigs and other animals were also diagnosed with bovine TB, so added to that ocean. The dogs would have at least enjoyed the water a bit more … unless there was soap or flea medicine involved.
“… they are fast learners and so keen to spit at things, including the researcher …”
It’s amazing how alike the worlds of science and journalism really are … this could fit the description of more than a few people I’ve worked with over the past 20 years or so.
And here you thought scientists weren’t funny.