Beware “The Quote”

Hang around a conversation long enough and you will eventually come face to face with The QuoteThe Quote is always thrown in there, somewhere between illustrating the point and ending the argument.   It can come from anyone quotable, as long as they’re dead — or close to it (except, of course, the Bible which is seen as déclassé these days.)  Unfortunately, most of the contemporary chattering class would rather get caught kicking kittens than quoting the Bible, one of the cornerstones of Western Civilization.  Go figure.  It really doesn’t matter, though, because The Quote is seldom attributed anyway.  The rationale being: we’re all smart here.  The reality being: the speaker doesn’t actually know where it comes from.  The Quote can run from sweet and smarmy: “You can learn something from every person you meet.”  (Utter nonsense!) to instructional: “Dream as if you’ll live forever; live as if you’ll die tomorrow.” (James Dean, dead at 24)  The Quote can also be just an ordinary maxim, aphorism or homily, like “A penny saved is a penny earned” although these don’t carry the same intellectual punch that the One-A-Day calendar quotes do.  They’re so-o-o common.  Regardless, the most important thing about The Quote is it must be delivered with a God-gilt air of authority.  Otherwise it just comes off as what it is: a sham.

In reality, the quote is a lazy person’s way of saving their ass from getting verbally overwhelmed.  It’s used as a show-stopper when the argument’s going badly and isn’t time for name calling yet.  People whip out the quote like it’s a 45 and think it deserves that kind of respect.  It doesn’t.  Let me illustrate.

Everybody knows Lord Acton’s famously misquoted “Power corrupts.  Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  (Actually, what Acton wrote was “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” but I’m not going to quibble.)  This is one of the biggies.  We learn it in sixth grade, when we’re not that smart, and remember it forever after.  Everybody just naturally believes it.  The problem is, that right or wrong, the connotation is that every powerful person, from the president to your landlord, is somewhat suspect.  They are, by definition, corrupt.  Why?  Because Lord What’s-his-name wrote it with a quill pen, back in the days when most people were still peeing outside.  He didn’t support it with any evidence.  He didn’t suggest there was a minimum level of power that triggered corruption.  He didn’t even specify what power corrupted: the soul? the body politic? the drainage system?  No, none of the above!  He just said power corrupts, and ever since then, we’ve believed it.  For all we know, he might have been drunk that night sitting around with his mistress, having a few grins after dinner.  (No sin by the way.)

I’ve got nothing against Lord Acton, but in actual fact, he didn’t know enough about power to fill a mouse’s ear.  He was an independently wealthy Lord who spent his time hanging out with scholars, being smart, and collecting books.  His closest brush with power was being pals with William Gladstone, Queen Victoria’s most on again/off again Prime Minister, and that’s no primo recommendation.  During Gladstone’s time in and out of office, he managed to back the Confederacy in the America Civil War (on Acton’s advice) get General Gordon and a few thousand Sudanese massacred in Khartoum, and, in his dotage dither the Irish Question so badly it drove him out of office and divided Ireland so thoroughly they’re still having trouble with it today.  But I digress.

This is the problem with the quote.  People tend to think it’s etched-in-stone true and beyond question.  Nobody bothers to find out who said the thing in the first place or whether they even knew what they were talking about.  What happens is the quote just gets passed around for a generation or two, until people quit saying, “Hey, wait a minute!  Where’d ya hear that crap?” And then it suddenly becomes words to live by.  “Strangers are just friends I haven’t met yet” wouldn’t carry so much weight if it was Emily Dickenson waxing lyrical now, would it?

Don’t be fooled by the quotables that inhabit our conversation.  Mainly, they’re just dead guys, spouting off.  There’s only one that demands any respect.  In Henry IV (Part 2) Act IV, Scene II, William Shakespeare wrote: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”

Now, those are words to live by.

The End of the Argument

When I was a kid, there seemed to be an inordinate number of ancient people kicking around who always insisted on telling me what it was like in the old days.  They were a constant pain in the ass because they never got around to any of the good stories and wouldn’t change the subject.  They’d ramble on for two eternities while I sat making noises in the right places and dreaming about Emma Peel and Samantha Stevens – inappropriately.  To be honest, I still don’t care how deep the snow was in 19-ought-nothin’ or how far it was to school.  Call me shallow!  But, life goes on, and now that the orthopedic shoe is on the other foot, so to speak, occasionally, I find myself also droning on about the Good Old Days, as if they mattered.  I suppose it’s the circle of life, Grasshopper, but sometimes I wish I would just learn to shut up.  But not on this day.

Believe it or not, one of the things people used to do in the good old days was argue.  It’s true; I’m not making this up.  Young people would gather in groups and verbally fight with each other over all kinds of things – politics, religion, fashion, books – it didn’t matter.  They’d get drunk on coffee and cigarettes or wine and weed and attack each other in spoken gunfights that lasted whole evenings.

The object of these oral engagements was to change the other person’s mind while simultaneously defending your own point of view.  This took skill, knowledge and a certain logical train of thought.  Arguments had to be framed on the fly and adapted to the chaos of the conversation.  They had to be concise and witty and able to withstand strong scrutiny.  Lame arguments were destroyed outright, while more substantial ones were modified to incorporate new ideas, as they ran the gauntlet of these wars of words.  You realized very quickly that you were responsible for what you said, and you’d better know what you’re talking about before you open your mouth.   However, it was a great way to battle-test your theories of life and discover the multitude of other concepts available.  As a student, I myself argued on many occasions, as did many of my friends.  We considered it part of our education.   We may have been taught economics in Dr. Bolton’s (not his real name) class, but we learned it fighting it out in a local tavern, appropriately called The Pit.  I still remember those days fondly.

This Golden Age came to a complete halt somewhere around the time of the first Star Wars movie (There’s no connection, by the way.)  I’m almost certain that what happened was some utter coward, faced with a verbal ass kickin’, reached back into Philosophy 101 and said, “Can’t we all just agree to disagree?”  (I hope they bludgeoned him to death on the spot.)  It might sound clever and profound, but what the hell does it even mean?  We have two conflicting points of view that are equally acceptable?  No, it doesn’t mean that; that’s impossible.  It means either “I’ve said a bunch of stupid stuff that’s indefensible, and I want a way out,” or “I’m such a total ignoramus that, despite overwhelming evidence, I’m not going to change my mind.”  That’s it!  “Let’s agree to disagree” is one of those witty phrases that’s supposed to convey an air of sophistication.  In actual fact, however, it’s just a sneaky way to get out of an argument — without looking like a complete fool.   With the introduction of “Let’s agree to disagree,” losers all over the world could mouth off in the most outrageous manner possible and then get off the hook by simply suggesting that we all agree to disagree.

Unfortunately, there are more of them than there are of us, and the idea spread like chicken pox.  This was the end of the argument – literally.  From there it was an easy slide to “Let’s agree not to disagree,” because when all points of view are equal, it doesn’t make any sense to fight about them.  Now, arguments no longer have a place in our society.  We don’t actually discourage disagreement so much as encourage silence.  We have abandoned logical trains of thought for the chimera of the consensus.  We need to all agree (even when we don’t) because it’s socially unacceptable to argue.  It’s better to shut up and get on with it.  This is why we have such enormous gaps between different groups in our society.  We think there must be something wrong with people who are outside our particular consensus.  It’s the only explanation we can come up with for disagreement.  And rather than framing a logical argument to change people’s point of view, we call them names.

Back in the old days, we did not go softly and we did not tread lightly.  Feelings were hurt and tears were shed, but in the end, we were better off because we selected our ideas after exhaustive arguments — verbal give-and-take – where concepts would stand or fall on their merit.  We did not tiptoe around difficult questions because we were afraid of being called bad names.  We gathered together and fought it out because all of us are smarter than each of us.  Today, the Age of Reason is over, and Aristotle’s system of Deductive Reasoning has been casually tossed aside in favour of some horrid Mutual Admiration Dystopia.

Wow!  And I promised myself I wouldn’t end up like those cranky old buggers I used to have to listen to when I was a kid.  Plus ca change…..