The practice of "quoting out of context", sometimes referred to as "contextomy," is a logical fallacy and type of false attribution in which a passage is removed from its surrounding matter in such a way as to distort its intended meaning. Quoting out of context is often a means to set up "straw man" arguments. Straw man arguments are arguments against a position which is not held by an opponent, but which may bear superficial similarity to the views of the opponent.
"Absurd in the highest degree"
An example found in debates over evolution
is an out-of-context quotation of Charles Darwin
in his Origin of Species
This sentence, sometimes truncated to the phrase "absurd in the highest degree", is often presented as part of an assertion that Darwin himself perceived his own theory of evolution as absurd.
However, Darwin went on to explain that the apparent absurdity of the evolution of an eye is no bar to its occurrence.
The quote in context is
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". The problem here is not the removal of a quote from its original context (as all quotes are) per se
, but to the quoter's decision to exclude from the excerpt certain nearby phrases or sentences (which become "context" by virtue of the exclusion) that serve to clarify the intentions behind the selected words. Comparing this practice to surgical excision, historian Milton Mayer
coined the term "contextomy" to describe its use by Julius Streicher
, editor of the infamous Nazi
broadsheet Der Stürmer
-era Germany. To arouse anti-semitic sentiments among the weekly’s working class Christian readership, Streicher regularly published truncated quotations from Talmudic texts that, in their shortened form, appear to advocate greed, slavery, and ritualistic murder (Mayer, 1966). Although rarely employed to this malicious extreme, contextomy is a common method of misrepresentation in contemporary mass media (McGlone, 2005a, b)
Contextomy in advertising
One of the most familiar examples of contextomy is the ubiquitous “review blurb” in advertising. The lure of media exposure associated with being “blurbed” by a major studio undoubtedly encourages some critics to write positive reviews of mediocre movies. However, even when a review is negative overall, studios have few reservations about excerpting it in a way that misrepresents the critic’s opinion. For example, the ad copy for New Line Cinema’s 1995 thriller Se7en attributed to Owen Gleiberman, a critic for Entertainment Weekly, the comment “a small masterpiece.” Gleiberman actually gave Se7en a B− overall and only praised the opening credits so grandiosely: “The credit sequence, with its jumpy frames and near-subliminal flashes of psychoparaphernalia, is a small masterpiece of dementia.” Similarly, United Artists contextomized critic Kenneth Turan’s review of their flop Hoodlum, including just one word from it — “irresistible” — in the film’s ad copy: “Even Laurence Fishburne’s incendiary performance can’t ignite Hoodlum, a would-be gangster epic that generates less heat than a nickel cigar. Fishburne’s ‘Bumpy’ is fierce, magnetic, irresistible even… But even this actor can only do so much.” As a result of these abuses, some critics now deliberately avoid colorful language in their reviews. (Reiner, 1997).
Contextomy in political spin
Contextomy is also a common spin tactic among unscrupulous political journalists. Consider the yew tree controversy that plagued former Vice President of the United States Al Gore in the late 1990s. The trouble began when David Ridenour, a conservative columnist for the Austin American-Statesman, wrote a piece criticizing the Vice President’s environmental policy agenda. Ridenour specifically criticized Gore’s willingness to put “environmental politics before people” as a moral failure and cited a passage from his 1992 book Earth in the Balance as evidence of this willingness. In the passage, Gore describes his stance on the preservation of the Pacific Yew, a tree with potentially important medicinal uses:
- The Pacific Yew can be cut down and processed to produce a potent chemical, Taxol, which offers some promise of curing certain forms of lung, breast and ovarian cancer in patients who would otherwise quickly die. It seems an easy choice — sacrifice the tree for a human life — until one learns that three trees must be destroyed for each patient treated. (p. 119)
Proceeding from this quotation, Ridenour (1998) argued that the Vice President would rather sacrifice people than deplete the Yew population, and thus lacked human compassion. Following the publication of the article, numerous references to the quotation appeared in conservative op-ed columns, magazines, radio, and television shows across the country. A year later, it even surfaced in a discussion of environmental policy on the floor of the House of Representatives. After reading the excerpt to his House colleagues, Rep. David McIntosh (R-Indiana) took issue with the Vice President’s apparent preference for trees over human lives:
- Three trees versus a human life, three trees versus the ability to prolong someone's life who is suffering from cancer? I would pick the individual, the person, the human being who is a cancer patient and suffering from that dreaded disease and say it is clear three trees are worth it. We can sacrifice three trees to save one human life. But the Vice President apparently does not think that is so clear (109th United States Congress, 2nd Session, 145 Cong. Rec. H3376, 1999).
If it were merely the ratio of trees to human lives that had bothered the Vice President, Rep. McIntosh’s outrage might be justified. However, a very different picture of Gore’s concerns emerges when the excerpt is examined in the context of the words immediately preceding and following it in his book (Ridenour’s excerpt appears in bold):
- Most of the [tree] species unique to the rain forests are in imminent danger, partly because there is no one to speak up for them. In contrast, consider the recent controversy over the yew tree, a temperate forest species, one variety of which now grows only in the Pacific Northwest. The Pacific Yew can be cut down and processed to produce a potent chemical, Taxol, which offers some promise of curing certain forms of lung, breast, and ovarian cancer in patients who would otherwise quickly die. It seems an easy choice — sacrifice the tree for a human life — until one learns that three trees must be destroyed for each patient treated, that only specimens more than a hundred years old contain the potent chemical, and that there are very few of these Yews remaining on earth. Suddenly we must confront some very tough questions. How important are the medical needs of future generations? Are those of us alive today entitled to cut down all of those trees to extend the lives of a few of us, even if it means that this unique form of life will disappear forever, thus making it impossible to save human lives in the future? (p.119)
In its original context, Gore’s expression of reluctance to cut down Yews does not, as his critics alleged, appear to be motivated by a fanatical pro-flora platform. Rather, it is based on the decidedly pro-person concern that toppling too many now would limit the supply available to benefit cancer patients of future generations. By strategically omitting this and other legitimate reasons Gore offered for preserving the Yew, Ridenour reduced the Vice President’s sober assessment of the dilemma to an embarrassing blurb confirming his reputation among conservatives as a “radical” environmentalist
For more examples of contextomy in political spin, see FactCheck.org. For more information about contextomy, see McGlone (2005 a, b).
- McGlone, Matthew S. (2005). Contextomy: The art of quoting out of context. Media, Culture, & Society, 27, 511-522.
- Gleiberman, O. (1995, September 22). “Se7en” (film review). Entertainment Weekly, p. 45.
- Gore, A. (1992). Earth in the Balance. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
- Looking at the record of the Vice-President, 109th Congress, 2d Sess., 145 Cong. Rec. H3376 (1999) (testimony of Rep. David McIntosh, R.-Indiana).
- Mayer, M. (1966). They thought they were free: The Germans, 1933–45. Chicago, IL: U. of Chicago Press.
- Reiner, L. (1996). Why movie blurbs avoid newspapers. Editor & Publisher: The Fourth Estate, 129, 123.
- Ridenour, D. (1998, August 16). How would Gore fare if he were called on to serve? Austin American-Statesman, p. A15.
- McGlone, M.S. (2005a). Quoted out of context: Contextomy and its consequences. Journal of Communication, 55, 330–346.
- McGlone, M.S. (2005b). Contextomy: The art of quoting out of context. Media, Culture, & Society, 27, 511–522.
- Turan, K., (1997, August 27). Hoodlum: A fight for control of Harlem. Los Angeles Times, p.8.