Chamblee54

Contextomy

Posted in Uncategorized by chamblee54 on October 24, 2015

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It is a popular line. “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” The credit, or blame, for this gem is assigned to Ben Franklin. Did he really say it? What was he talking about?

The good news is that Mr. Franklin did say these words. (Here is the text. ) What follows was written by a lawyer. Prepare to be confused.

The words appear originally in a 1755 letter that Franklin is presumed to have written on behalf of the Pennsylvania Assembly to the colonial governor during the French and Indian War. The letter was a salvo in a power struggle between the governor and the Assembly over funding for security on the frontier, one in which the Assembly wished to tax the lands of the Penn family, which ruled Pennsylvania from afar, to raise money for defense against French and Indian attacks. The governor kept vetoing the Assembly’s efforts at the behest of the family, which had appointed him. So to start matters, Franklin was writing not as a subject being asked to cede his liberty to government, but in his capacity as a legislator being asked to renounce his power to tax lands notionally under his jurisdiction. In other words, the “essential liberty” to which Franklin referred was thus not what we would think of today as civil liberties but, rather, the right of self-governance of a legislature in the interests of collective security.

Mr. Franklin was writing on behalf of legislators who wanted to assess a tax. The quote is used by tax hating conservatives. The modern conservative wants to send a hundred thousand troops to a conflict eight time zones away, and pay for it with tax cuts.

Another article tells much the same story, but with a couple of twists. There is a google gimmick that shows how often a quote is used. The BF quote was little known until the twentieth century.

The techcrunch article introduces a dandy word for the rampant misuse of quotes. The word is contextomy. This explanation is from Matthew McGlone of the University of Texas at Austin.

“‘Contextomy’ refers to the selective excerpting of words from their original linguistic context in a way that distorts the source’s intended meaning, a practice commonly referred to as ‘quoting out of context’. Contextomy is employed in contemporary mass media to promote products, defame public figures and misappropriate rhetoric. A contextomized quotation not only prompts audiences to form a false impression of the source’s intentions, but can contaminate subsequent interpretation of the quote when it is restored to its original context. …”

Episode 39 of The Fallacy-a-Day Podcast deals with contextomy. The spell check suggestion for contextomy is contentment. This is a repost. Pictures for this feature are from “The Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University Library”.

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