contradictions and confirmation bias
I don’t envy these people who are tasked with coming up with a memorial quote that is simultaneously pithy and meaningful. Hendrick Hertzberg, among others, is criticizing the architect of Martin Luther King’s memorial for failing to take the context of King’s speech into account when he decided to use this truncated quote on the side of King’s statue:
If you read the sermon, it becomes clear that, not only did the architect commit a hatched job, the paragraph he pulled actually contradicts the whole point King was trying to get across.
King’s point was to rail against the “drum major instinct”; the drive in each of us that says “hey look at me!” But then, toward the end, he sort of makes a verbal personal foul and says: if you want to call me a drum major then at least say I am doing it for the good of mankind because that is not… er… quite as megalomaniacal as… uh… I mean… anyway back to what I was saying….
My take is that the quote came from a moment in which King started down an unfortunate verbal path and was trying to get out of it to get back to his main point. Oops.
Last April, Caroline Alexander brought up the same question of context regarding the use of a quote on the 9/11 Memorial. In that case, the quote “No day shall erase you from the memory of time,” actually came from a longer sentence in which the poet Virgil was lauding his own role as a poet recording history in venerating the memory of an amorous pair of soldiers who died in midst of battle. Virgil is basically saying: it’s a good thing I know what you two were up to, because otherwise you would die in obscurity like every other piker… or something like that.
What is the common thread? Personally, I think that this reveals something about the relationship between writing and comprehension. Anything worth committing to print will contradict something the reader feels they know. What makes King’s sermon good is that it contradicts the seemingly accepted idea that it’s OK to be a drum major. He’s hoping that we get some insight through extemporizing on this contradiction. But this isn’t how most people read or listen. Most of the time, we read to confirm what we think we already know. Particularly when we dive into a body of work to pull a quote. It’s not surprising, then, that the only part of the speech anyone seems to remember is the part where he mistakenly got caught up in a contradictory trope: because that’s the very contradiction that we already believe.
The effect of this is doubled when it comes to people whose actual words have been buried under their own legends. We think of King as a drum major of justice. It doesn’t matter what he said or the context. As for Virgil, all that matters is that we have a vague idea that he was a romantic wordy poet that died a long time ago. He might be venerating the love of a pair of gay soldiers, but that doesn’t matter. We see only the words that reinforce what we think we know.
Makes you wonder about the whole idea of referencing others’ work, does it not? Next time I am tempted to toss in a reference to something by Pierre Bordieu or Harrison White which I may not actually have read in its full context I may give it a second thought. I may also have a little more sympathy for the students who always seem to misunderstand what I’m trying to get across in class. Thank goodness I’m not a legend in my own time; they’d be utterly lost.