In a certain TED talk, two short video clips are shown depicting the same staged incident from two different angles. In the first you see Man # 1 rush toward Man # 2, without provocation, and push him down. You probably get the impression that Man # 1 is a vicious hoodlum or a maniac, if not both. But in the second version, you see that Man # 2 was standing directly under a heavy falling object, and realize that Man # 1 was pushing him out of the way, perhaps saving his life. Proper context can make all the difference in the wold. Now suppose that someone who knew the whole story told you only about Man # 1’s attack. You might properly suspect that this person was trying to deceive, to paint an unduly negative portrait of Man # 1. Because this individual has misrepresented the incident by decontextualization, the next in our series of propaganda props (and the subject of our 300th blog post).
You no doubt see a great many things online that have been decontextualized. Chances are the people who are passing these citations along are actually unaware that they have been taken out of context. But if you trace them to their origins, there is often someone at the beginning who engaged in deliberate deceit. Decontextualizing something not only alters its meaning but, quite often, reverses it 180 degrees.
Probably the most common form of decontextualization is a partial quote omitting other parts of a statement. You may have had a glimpse of the following popular meme:
Here we have birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger making a seemingly racist and downright fascist comment, followed by Hillary Clinton saying how much she admires Margaret Sanger — thus suggesting that she herself is racist and fascist. And that Planned Parenthood and abortion providers have some kind of diabolical plot going. Well, both quotes are authentic and accurate (or at least very close to accurate). But the meme is deceptive because it doesn’t reproduce Sanger’s statement in its entirety:
We don’t want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population and the minister is the man who can straighten out that idea if it ever occurs.
It’s clear enough from reading the whole thing that she was singling out the idea of wanting to “exterminate the Negro population” as a misconception she wanted to avoid rather than a dictum she wanted to follow.
In addition to omitting part of an utterance, manipulators can ignore the circumstances or intent of the utterance. The Washington Post’s fact checker really, really had his work cut out for him during the administration of 45, listing and documenting his thousands and thousands of falsehoods and deceptions. But some MAGA apologists have taken exception to this roster of falsehoods, nit-picking that some of the statements are not really lies. In fact, one defender of 45 even pointed to part of the fact checker’s analysis of one statement, quoting the words “while technically accurate..” Aha! said the MAGA-ist. If it’s technically accurate, how can it be a lie?
This is a very interesting two-fold illustration of decontextualizing. First of all, the MAGA-ist was quoting only part of the fact-checker’s sentence. And second, he failed to mention that the fact checker designated the list of 45’s pronouncements not just as lies but as “lies and misleading statements”. It’s possible to make a factual statement that is misleading because of its context. If 45 touted the booming economy (as he often did) it was misleading because it was intended to support his claims that he was responsible for economic recovery — in fact he was riding on the coattails of an economic trend that began long before he came to power.
The use of partial data, in fact, is another form of decontextualization. We’ve encountered this kind of thing before in discussing how selective crime statistics are often cited as a tactic to support the claim that “gun control” is ineffective. It’s common practice to mention how crime rose in Chicago right after a handgun ban went into effect in 2008. But looking at the fuller picture shows that this was merely a brief and slight spike, such as occurs from time to time, in the midst of a steep and lengthy downward trend. Sometimes, in other words, decontextualization intersects with cherry picking.
Another way to decontextualize is to present words or actions without an indication of how they were originally intended. The gun culture likes to label armed citizens as a “militia”, because that’s the word used in the Second Amendment. But the word had a very different meaning when the amendment was written.
When Al Gore was campaigning for president, the media tied itself into pretzels in an attempt to follow the GOP tactic of trying to frame him as a liar. This consistently involved taking his comments out of context (and altering them). One example was that in addressing a union crowd, he brought up lullabies he’d heard as a child, and then began singing “Look For The Union Label”, to great applause. His attackers later pointed out that the song was not written until he was 27, and thus his remark was another “bizarre fabrication”. What’s bizarre, however, is that anyone would ever take his words at face value; he was clearly being facetious. Not even the dumbest politician on the planet would classify that song as a lullaby.
Sometimes the context might be a matter of linguistic idiom or cultural association. This was the case with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev’s infamous line “we will bury you”. At least that’s the way it was translated at the time. And many Americans interpreted it as a threat, because they were unfamiliar with Russian language and culture. But in the idiomatic usage Khrushchev was invoking, “we will bury you” means something more like “we will survive you”, or “we are stronger than you are”.
Another way to take a comment out of context is to remove its referential antecedent, and make it appear to be referring to something else. Another popular quote about Hillary Clinton, for instance, is that during the endless hearings on the Benghazi attack, she at one point asked, “What difference, at this point, does it make?” So there, say the Hillary haters. She clearly doesn’t care about the American lives that were lost that day. Some of them even helpfully amended her comment to “Who cares?”. But that’s not what she said. And she wasn’t referring to the four people who were killed. She was referring to the interminable hair-splitting speculation about what provoked the attack in the first place.
In some cases, the context is historical. Republicans, for instance, are fond of brandishing the fact that it was Republicans who ended slavery, while Democrats fought to preserve it. They just leave out the part that happened during the ensuing 150 years. On a related note, the GOP has also made much political fodder over the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) having been involved in the KKK. The part they leave out is that this occurred back in the 1940s. And shortly thereafter he renounced the organization and began to make amends — he later called his involvement with the Klan the biggest mistake he ever made. Indeed his death was mourned by the NAACP, which had given him consistently high marks for working to better race relations during his latter decades.
Finally, it’s very easy to use an image out of context, because unless you know the circumstances under which a photo was taken, appearances can be deceiving — especially if someone falsely labels the photo or the events surrounding it.
Here, the right-wing organization Turning Point USA uses this photo of empty supermarket shelves to champion “free markets” and, by inference, take a jab at “socialism”. Trouble is, this photo actually has nothing to do with free markets, socialism or what right-wingers envision as “socialism”. It was actually taken in Japan, during severe shortages after a tsunami — a disaster such as can impact a store’s supplies no matter what kind of economic system it operates under.
Right-wingers realize that they often quote things out of context, so they come up with some pretty contorted defenses of that practice. Historical revisionist Dinesh D’Souza gave what is perhaps the most absurd of all — he said that, of course any quote from a book is going to be out of context, because in order to put it in context you’d have to recite the whole book. Nice try, Dinesh, but –well no, it’s not a nice try at all, come to think of it. It’s astoundingly dumb even by his usual standards. You don’t need an entire book to show the context, in the normal sense of the word, of any given statement (though in some comes you might need several passages from it). All you need is enough to make the meaning and intent faithful and clear.
At the same time, wingers are quick to flash the context card, often quite inappropriately, whenever they get criticized for one of their own outrageous comments. Over-hyped Youtuber Candace Owens, for instance, caught flak for brushing off Hitler’s fanatical nationalism, in a comment that included this:
…if Hitler had just wanted to make Germany great and have things run well, OK, fine.The problem is that he wanted — he had dreams outside of Germany.
It was only after her remarks surfaced weeks later that she tried to spin the reaction as decontextualization, and made a damage control condemnation of Hitler. But there was absolutely nothing in her original comments that would have provided a mitigating context.
Likewise, there was much outrage over 45’s phrase “very fine people on both sides”. His defenders claimed it was taken out of context because he then turned around and said he didn’t mean to include neo-Nazis. But the problem is, he did include neo-Nazis. They were one of the two sides he alluded to, and there were no other sides. To be very charitable to him, one might figure that he didn’t intend to call neo-Nazis very fine people. But whether he intended to or not, he unquestionably did.
In short, it’s important to place things in their proper context. But there are some things that all the context in the world can not redeem.