Quotes, authority and truth

UPDATE: Apparently, Dr. King did say it. Well, some of it. Kind of. And we think we know who started it. Maybe.

By now, people have probably seen both of the following in the aftermath of Osama Bin Laden’s death:

“‎I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr.

They have also probably seen this Atlantic article (or a derivative thereof) about how the quote is misattributed to Martin Luther King, Jr. He never said it. And we don’t really know who started it.

Wait, wait...don't tell me!

Most people use the Martin Luther King, Jr. quote to encourage sobriety during the news of Bin Laden’s death. Others use this idea that the quote is misattributed to excuse their jubilation. What most people don’t ask is, why does a misattribution make the quote somehow less valuable?

It’s human nature to appeal to authority. After all, authorities usually know a lot about whatever they’re an authority of. For the most part, even the most independent, iconoclastic hipster or libertarian still makes appeals to authority on a daily basis. If you’ve never seen Australia with your own eyes but talk about Australia as if it is actually there because you read it in a book, that’s an appeal to authority, just as much as someone uses a Founding Father quote to prove that their economic policy or ideology is “right.” Appeal to authority is important and even necessary when constructing our world view.

But then we get into cases like this Martin Luther King, Jr. quote. Just because Dr. King didn’t say it, does it automatically discredit the information? Why do we like this quote? Is it a profound truth, one that resonates within our souls, and we simply want to give credit where credit is due? Or do we believe in it more, that it is somehow “more true,” because a famous civil rights leader said it? If, instead, it was our grandmother, or a drunk off the street, does it make it somehow “less true”? We all like to think that we, as people, are more interested in actual truthfulness of statements more than who said it, but do we act like it?

All of these are important questions to ask when it comes to considering the validity and worth of any quote.

“I hate quotes. Tell me what you know.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson 


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