Archive for May, 2011

Why that fake MLK quote matters

May 3, 2011 5 comments

By now I assume everyone who re-posted the following quote (in reference to celebrations of the death of Osama bin Laden):

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.

has learned that it wasn’t exactly a quote by Martin Luther King, Jr. who apparently is right up there with Nelson Mandela, Mohandas Gandhi, Kurt Vonnegut and Bill Gates in terms of false attributions. To be fair, the original facebook post had it right: the author’s own words, followed by the quote. Which then got combined and re-posted.

There was a kerfluffle on my own facebook when I pointed this out after a friend quoted it as a comment on a related post of mine.

Now, I agree with the sentiment, the whole thing. And while I didn’t join in the repost of this particular misquote, I’ve participated in such post-fests before. And when I get called out I feel foolish, defensive or embarrassed (or some mixture of the three). Some of the reactions I’ve seen this time around are “well it’s not like this is an academic paper” or “well it’s a good message anyway.”

But I think dismissing the misquote problem by saying “hey, it’s just facebook” misses a big point: that quote wouldn’t have been so widely passed around had it not had “MLK” attached to it. To me, that’s a form of cultural misappropriation just as egregious as the rewritten African American spirituals included in the UU hymnal Singing the Living Tradition.

As a white person I’ve been conditioned to think my good intentions will insulate me from criticism when I try to earn points by appropriating the words of people of color. Turning this kind of criticism around and making the issue about my own hurt white feelings is not the kind of behavior that’s going to make anyone want me as their ally.

Snarky’s Machine pointed out to me that Damon Brown tells how to recognize fake quotes like this in The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Memes. Until I read this, I vow to be a little more discerning about reposting and retweeting things attributed to others, and sticking to using my own words.

Even if they aren’t going to make me Internet-famous.