Home > Essays > Why that fake MLK quote matters

Why that fake MLK quote matters

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.

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  1. May 3, 2011 at 2:47 pm

    Excellent analysis, Redlami! When i read Damon’s book I was struck at how little slips, tweaks (intentional or unintentional) can go viral and easily become “the truth”. Whether it’s Obama’s citizenship or something like the example you’ve blogged about. It matters because people have a funny relationship with the truth: they don’t let it get in the way of a great narrative. The internet has made this phenom easier to perpetuate and how its effects can be quite destructive.

  2. May 3, 2011 at 3:30 pm

    Thanks so much for the mention and the analysis, Redlami and Snarky. My co-author John Gunders and me found that repetition can easily overpower fact checking. In fact, we assume it is true simply because of the number of people who believe it. In that sense, the truth doesn’t matter. What matters is what everyone believes.

    • May 3, 2011 at 3:42 pm

      In light of the topic I was hesitant to quote, but Snarky told me that one thing to watch for was if the meme seemed tailor-made for the situation, which was certainly the case here.

      And repetition makes fact-checking nearly impossible… attempts to search for this quote are hampered by thousands of entries of the misattributed quote.

  3. May 3, 2011 at 3:38 pm

    @Damon – I think that’s what troubles me the most about these situations when they come up. Most people are more pissed they were called out for publishing dubious content rather than wanting to correct the erroneous information. I mean it sucks for the original poster who is seeing her words attributed to someone else! Even on that point it’s hard to get folks to reassess their contribution to the foolishness.

  4. May 4, 2011 at 7:23 am

    I think you are so so so SO on the money here, Red!

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