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:
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.
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!