It should come as no surprise that I’m no fan of partisanship, especially the blind, rabid kind. If that is a surprise, you either haven’t been paying attention, or perhaps are in the grips of such partisanship.
Parents—especially of teens … or cats … or dogs—know a little something about selective hearing; partisanship, in a sense, works the same way. Say something straightforward and, depending on where allegiances lie, it could be perceived in ways you never would have imagined.
Like confirmation bias in which people seek out information that reinforces their views (usually relegating anything that challenges those views to the trash pile), some partisans also hear what they want to hear and discard the rest. It’s one of the reasons I tend to look askance at truncated quotes—usually just a very few isolated words—as so many times what the speaker said is not what those partisans say he did.
It’s very easy to make someone say what you want him to say when you’re the one putting the words together, whether it’s just a few words—like “you didn’t build that”—or slightly longer passages that conveniently clip away anything that might not prove the point—like “The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam.” Barack Obama seems to be a favorite of quote-miners, but regardless of who is the target, it’s a dishonorable strategy. (No, I’m not necessarily a fan of Obama’s; I am, though, a fan of truth, and when someone commits such contextual chicanery, it must be battled.)
If you’ve forgotten, the full “prophet of Islam” quote was not quite what Obama’s detractors made it out to be:
The future must not belong to those who target Coptic Christians in Egypt—it must be claimed by those in Tahrir Square who chanted, ‘Muslims, Christians, we are one.’ The future must not belong to those who bully women—it must be shaped by girls who go to school, and those who stand for a world where our daughters can live their dreams just like our sons.
“The future must not belong to those corrupt few who steal a country’s resources—it must be won by the students and entrepreneurs, the workers and business owners who seek a broader prosperity for all people. Those are the women and men that America stands with; theirs is the vision we will support.
“The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam. But to be credible, those who condemn that slander must also condemn the hate we see in the images of Jesus Christ that are desecrated, or churches that are destroyed, or the Holocaust that is denied.
“Let us condemn incitement against Sufi Muslims and Shiite pilgrims. It’s time to heed the words of Gandhi: ‘Intolerance is itself a form of violence and an obstacle to the growth of a true democratic spirit.’ Together, we must work towards a world where we are strengthened by our differences, and not defined by them. That is what America embodies, that’s the vision we will support.”
Not that it matters to people with an axe to grind.
Heck, movie ads are some of the worst when it comes to truncated quotes, transforming, for example, Entertainment Weekly’s review of Se7en 20 years ago to “masterpiece” on the movie posters, rather than including the context surrounding that word: “a small masterpiece of dementia.”
And most Arkansans over 40 likely remember Sheffield Nelson’s “raise and spend” ad mischaracterizing a quote from Bill Clinton in the 1990 gubernatorial race. Those three words clipped from a speech to the Arkansas Legislature helped drive down Clinton’s vote share until he discredited the ad with one of his own, saying:
“Here’s what I actually said to the legislature: ‘Unlike our friends in Washington, we can’t write a check on an account that is overdrawn. Either we raise and spend or we don’t spend.’ All I was doing was fighting for a balanced budget. But Nelson went to work and cut out the words ‘raise and spend’ from my speech to give you the wrong impression.”
Clinton regained the lead.
Sometimes there’s a reason—more money from more moviegoers, more votes—for the contextual divorce from reality. Sometimes, though, it’s not the original source that’s the problem—it’s the end user’s biases that prevent understanding and/or acceptance of things at face value. In some people, their partisanship is so strong that not only do they choose news services on the basis of perceived ideological slant, they also can’t seem to help interpreting what’s said by someone of a different viewpoint in a manner that doesn’t square with what was actually said.
Slate’s Bill Bishop commented on this phenomenon back in 2008 a few weeks before the general election, noting “It’s not what people say that matters in today’s politics. It’s what people hear.” John Avlon of CNN went a step further in 2013 when talking to Bill Maher about Tom Cotton’s rewriting of history on attacks in the U.S. during the George W. Bush administration: “Hyper-partisanship makes you stupid, and you start playing to the cheap seats.”
Which helps explain why people were so upset when Donald Trump was accused of calling Iowans stupid, because he would never … oh, wait … never mind.
Partisanship has gotten so bad that the simplest statements are being reimagined, often as the complete opposite of what was actually said, often with words not in the original quote.
What President Obama says: I am a Christian.
What partisans hear: Allahu Akbar!!!!!
What he really means: Seriously, dudes, give it a rest and listen. I. Am. A. Christian.
As long as we continue to let ideology lead us around and inform what we hear and see, this will keep happening, and people like me will keep getting frustrated every time it does. For speakers, say what you mean and mean what you say; for the audience, pay attention to the words actually said, not to how you feel about the speaker.
It really is that simple.
We here on the Voices page are often misunderstood as well. Some days I get a little seasick from all the eye-rolling (often accompanied by heavy sighs and the thud of my head on the desk) as a result of wild misinterpretations of extremely simple statements I or someone else makes on this page.
What is said: Anything stated as fact will be fact-checked. If you’re stating your opinion, please make sure that it would be obvious to the average person that it’s your opinion.
What is heard: We don’t print opinion, so tough luck … and your mama dresses you funny!
What it really means: Just what it said … you do realize this is an opinion page, right? That’s kinda what we do here.
Yes, if you state opinion as fact when it’s not, you won’t be published if it’s not clear that it’s your opinion. For example, you may believe the moon is made of smoked gouda, but since science has proved it’s not (sorry, MasterChef Junior contestants), you can’t say “The moon is made of gouda,” as it is stated as a fact. You can say “I believe the moon is made of gouda,” which indicates that it is your belief, mistaken as it might be.
Besides, the story I heard was that the moon was made of green cheese, which gouda typically isn’t. So there.