The Power (and Danger) of Quotations

I love quotations because it is a joy to find thoughts one might have, beautifully expressed with much authority by someone recognized wiser than oneself.

Marlene Dietrich

I really enjoy collection quotations and feature quotes heavily on my site. [1] Dietrich makes a great point here – good quotations are linguistic delights that you wish you had written/spoken. In addition, I believe that short, declarative statements often a stronger impact/impression on a reader than a long drawn out passage.

In this essay, I seek to draw out some of the salient issues addressing the power and danger of using quotations to express ideas and then share some advice on how how to best quote and be quoted.

The Power of Quotes

A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week. — General George S. Patton
Some people follow their dreams, others hunt them down and beat them mercilessly into submission. — Neil Kendall [2]
Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing. — Ben Franklin

These are some of my favorite quotes – you’ll notice they all deliver a strong message with a clear point of view. These words compel the reader to respond in some fashion – you cannot read them and thing “eh”. Reading quotes like these motivate me to get after it. This is the power of of a great quotation.

The power is not just in the words though, but in their author. Patton had to make decisions that would affect the lives of hundreds of thousands of soldiers and determine the fate of nations – his claims about plan vs execution carry great weight. Ben Franklin’s quote is great because not only was he himself was a multi-talented individual who both WROTE and DID.

In this blog I hope to write things that are someday quoted and do things that are someday written about. But as anyone who’s ever appeared in a newspaper, quotations can be dangerous things.

The Danger of Quotes

They can be dangerous because they can be taken out of context. They can, in the hands of the careless, misrepresent the author, and in the hands of unscrupulous, defame or discredit them. Without the groundwork that the author laid prior to the specific passage being quoted, or the environment in which the statement was released, we lose valuable information about exactly what the author was trying to say.

I quoted Sebastian Marshall in a widely-linked post he wrote on bullying where he told his unborn son that people teasing him was fine, but that

As soon as someone puts their hands on you, they’ve crossed a line. Fuck them up. It’s the only thing these vicious freaks understand.

He commented later that it was odd to see himself being quoted and that while agrees with what was being said, it represented him at his “top 1% assertiveness”. I liked the sentiment. It was strongly worded no doubt – and might be considered a bit of an extreme response to some light physical harassment. But the post was written as a response to the Memoirs of a Bullied Kid, where the author, after being mercilessly bullied for years, still advocated a very warm, loving approach to bullying. In this context, the quote was spot on. [3]

Now Sebastian is returning the favor and quoting me in an email I sent him where I said:

Liked the post on being quoted – and you’d better get used to it – it’s going to keep happening to you. There are three ways that any work is interpreted – the way the artist intended, the way it is received by his/her audience, and the way history reflects upon it’s impact. You only have control over the first.

This idea is not an original. [4] Seth Godin just wrote a post on being misunderstood. His solution – prepare for it and repeat yourself. The point is – quotes and creative work in general affect different people in different ways – and especially when used out of context, quotes can be used to

How to Quote or Be Quoted

So ultimately some thoughts on quotations:

    If you are quoting someone - do your best to understand what that person was trying to say. If possible read the entire passage/text or listen to the full speech. If relevant, seek to understand the political/social landscape at the time and place the quote happened.

    If you are being quoted - understand that being misunderstood is a fundamental aspect of putting creative work into the world. Be prepared to clarify/rephrase your thoughts and simply accept that not everyone will take your words to mean what you intend.

Footnotes

[1] I am aware of the difference between a quote and a quotation, but as many do, I will use the terms interchangeably on this site.

[2] I like this quote so much I put it on my personal business card! [3] This may be, in part, because it’s the advice I needed to hear growing up. I was skinny, nerdy and not interested in sports as a kid and I got harassed verbally and physically. The few times I fought back resulted in much better outcomes than just ignoring it … though I never did try putting my arm around the bullies as the author of Memoirs of a Bullied Kid advocates. [4] I am a little hesitant to even have Sebastian “quoting” my email as I think my “three interpretations” comes from something I read by another, wiser, author. But then again, I must accept that many all my thoughts/ideas (and those of others) stem either directly or indirectly from things we’ve read.
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