The Internet, Sourcing Quotations, and Shouting Crazy Things on Street Corners

I love the internet. It will tell you anything.

It will tell you that Albert Einstein said this (or some version of it): “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

If you’re looking for some powerful, beautifully deep-voiced words about equal rights, the internet will give you this from Morgan Freeman: “I hate the word homophobia. It’s not a phobia. You are not scared. You are an asshole.”

It will point you to this encouraging gem from Marilyn Monroe: “To all the girls that think you’re fat because you’re not a size 0, you’re the beautiful one, it’s society who’s ugly.”

Or this lovely poem from Anais Nin: “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud became more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

Or this terrifying xenophobic diatribe by “comedian” Robin Williams.

Or this even more terrifying ornery-old-conservative-man screed called “I’m 83 and I’m Tired” by comedian Bill Cosby.

Or this well-ahead-of-its time thought (among many, many others) from Abraham Lincoln: “I am in favor of animal rights as well as human rights. That is the way of a whole human being.”

It’s important to note here that I do love the internet, honestly, sincerely and deeply. It really will tell you just about anything, and much of it useful, if you know where to look. But the one thing the internet won’t tell you is the actual origin of any of those quotes above — not just who said it, but the book, speech, letter or so on in which it was said or written.

And that’s because none of those people actually said any of those things.

The “definition of insanity” quote made its first known appearance in a Narcotics Anonymous text in 1981, popularized two years later by author Rita Mae Brown. The little bit of common sense attributed to Morgan Freeman came from a parody Twitter account. The Marilyn quote has no known source, but she certainly didn’t say it; there was no size zero until after her death, and Marilyn (herself quite thin, actually) wasn’t really one for bucking trends, or for self-empowerment more generally. The Nin quote sure sounds like her and is kind of an amalgam of a lot of things Nin may have written or thought, but it was actually written for a 1979 college schedule. The Williams quote is from a much more likely-seeming source — a USENET posting that in a later reposting had a single real Williams “joke” appended to it. Of course Cosby didn’t write that nonsense whining about having to pay taxes (can you even imagine?) — that was a quite possibly insane retired Massachusetts state senator (Cosby is also nowhere near 83 years old). No one knows where the animal rights thing came from, but it’s not from Lincoln; I can find writings about the rights of animals dating back near Lincoln’s time, but the term “animal rights” as it’s used today doesn’t seem to really have been a thing before about 1975.

This is the kind of thing that will one day, inevitably, be the end of me. I see a quote that resonates with me (or angers me) and I immediately want to know the context. The identity of the speaker and the context within which it was said often mean as much as the quote itself. Did a surgeon say that, or one of our most accomplished female writers, or a madman in his anti-everything manifesto? Was he speaking to an eighth-grade religion class at an all-girls Catholic school, or at a USO stop in Afghanistan? Did she write it in the speech or thoughts of her novel’s clearly, fatally misapprehending protagonist, or in her own private journal? These things make a big difference. They can make the words mean drastically different things.

The internet (the faceless being that is made up of what must be all these hundreds of people who are apparently deciding to spend real time intentionally misattributing quotes) understands that who said what and when matter, too, but to the internet, that matters only because it gets more attention if it’s sexy. If it’s supposed to sound smart, it sounds better coming from Einstein. If it’d sound really cool in Morgan Freeman’s voice (and what wouldn’t?), then sure, go with that. If it’s about beauty or self-image, you want it to come from The One Classic Image of Beauty herself (or from this weird fictionalized, saintly version of Marilyn that the modern world has developed), and to be paired with one of her photos. If it’s deeply horrifying political nonsense, who better to hear it from than the smiling face of a normally frivolous funnyman? And so on.

It’s not just your friends on Facebook, either. You sometimes have to do real work to uncover the truth about these things. You can find these false quotes — even some of the most clearly false, silly-on-their-face ones — at what appear to be professional, legitimate places. Places like BrainyQuote (which, apparently, is neither) and Goodreads (a good site, for other things). It’s tempting to say “just take two seconds and Google this stuff, dammit,” and doing so would straighten you out very quickly on utter rot like the Williams and Cosby nutsorants, but even that can be awfully misleading on the more innocuous stuff. It’s just the entire internet that has or propagates this problem, or a big portion of the internet that’s often very hard to distinguish from the useful portion. It’s great, this internet thing is, but it’s badly broken too.

It’s like this: try to remember or imagine what life was like, in terms of the media to which one was exposed, in 1985. You had three television networks — not that they were producing consistently great stuff, but it was heavily filtered, lots of people taking lots of time deciding exactly what you should watch and how much of it. You had one newspaper, with a team of fact-checkers, or any of several similarly professionally checked and edited magazines. You could go to the movies or the theater. On the way to the movies or the theater or the newsstand, you might pass a street corner from which a certifiably insane gentleman might yell at you about Jesus through a megaphone or hand you a pamphlet about how the world is ending on Tuesday.

Now, though? Your whole world is that guy on the street corner. Thanks to the miracle of modern technology, those guys won. It’s all just shouting stuff now.

You can read whatever you want written by anyone; there’s no filter to check facts or reasonableness or, hell, just to make sure that what you’re about to see isn’t just something that should never be seen under any circumstances by anyone. It’d be incredibly easy and helpful, whenever you’re passing along an interesting quote, to find room for an extra three or five words below the attribution that give you a hint of the actual spatial and temporal source of that quote; on the internet, there’s no one there to make sure you do that, and absolutely no motivation to do it. If something sounds funnier coming from Betty White than the no-name comic who actually said it, then Betty White means more pageviews or shares or retweets, and so suddenly it’s Betty White’s quote. If something is so completely batshit crazy that people will only pay attention to it if you can dupe some poor gullible souls into believing somehow that Bill Cosby said it, than by God, that’s who said it.

The internet is a wonderful place, and for largely those reasons — the lack of filter and accountability and all-around final-frontier nature of it are what makes it all worthwhile and so endlessly fascinating. The world is better, lots better, than it was in 1985.

But, come on. Can’t we get some quotes with proper attribution, every now and then? Or a site (like Snopes but less focused on things that kind of, you know, matter) devoted entirely to sourcing or debunking widely-shared quotes? Do I have to be the one to do this? Because I will do it. And I will spend all my time on it, and yet the internet will slog on unabated, happily pretending that MLK disapproves of our celebrating getting Osama Bin Laden. And it will be the end of me.

Feminism and Dumb College Kids

My now-wife and I in the student newspaper office, ca. 1999.

My now-wife and I in the student newspaper office, ca. 1999. Photo by Trevor Anthony.

I was editor-in-chief of my college newspaper for my senior year. It was a weekly paper, serving a tiny liberal arts school, but it was a ton of work, and generally pretty rewarding.

Early in that year, we had an opinion article come in from an enthusiastic, slightly awkward, impossibly young-seeming freshman girl; I’m going to call her “Abby” (I legitimately have no memory of her name, not that I’d use it if I had). I remember it was riddled with typos and muddled sentences, and I helped to fix those, but paid little attention to the content — it was opinion, so couldn’t Abby say basically whatever she wanted to? I also had an opinion-section editor I trusted with this sort of thing. And at a school that size, you kind of have to take what you can get. Wouldn’t running this be better than a giant opinion-article-shaped white space? I don’t know if I thought even that much about it, but if I had, that would’ve been my thinking.

And as it turned out, the piece was awful. Truly, disastrously, unconscionably poor. This would’ve been the early fall of 2000, and enthusiastic Abby had written an article enthusiastically endorsing Reform Party candidate (and enthusiastic racist, misogynist and xenophobe) Pat Buchanan for president. And it endorsed all the most horrible things Buchanan had said; I don’t remember the specifics now, and he’s said so many horrible things since that you’ll have a hell of a time finding them, but I believe there was one about abortion being like slavery, there was something else compared to Hitler, and there was, of course, a whole lot to be said about those damned illegals. I think there was a condemnation of homosexuality, too, but I can’t remember.

This wasn’t a simple matter of someone assuming an unpopular political position at a hippy-dippy West Coast liberal arts school (it certainly was that, but that’s a big part of why small-liberal-arts-college newspapers exist); it was a column that had overtly offended, in one way or another, very nearly everyone in the school. Nowadays, being smarter than a college kid, I’d have chosen the white space instead, or ugly comp ads for various student organizations, or I’d have written a ten-minute editorial on why ‘N Sync was better than 98 Degrees and Backstreet. Something. Anything but that piece.

The fallout was huge, for a school that size and a paper nobody usually cared much about. People wrote letters. There was an emergency meeting of some kind with professors and assistant deans. I somehow escaped the fate I feel like I probably deserved (or any repercussions at all, really, save some discomfort), but she was, for a while, the laughingstock of the school.

Long story short (long story entirely skipped, actually, because I never really knew it):

By the end of that year, Abby had discovered she was a lesbian — immersed in what seemed from a distance like an awesome, loving, serious relationship with a fellow freshman — and something between a Marxist and an anarchist. I’d love to say she went on to teach yoga and take vegan cooking classes and tutor immigrant children in San Francisco or Portland and never had another day of trouble in her life, but I have absolutely no clue what happened to her after that year; the point is, she became an entirely different (and certainly happier, kinder, and far more comfortable-with-herself) person. That’s the kind of thing that happens. College kids are stupid, and most of them eventually get smarter; sooner or later, almost all of them become themselves.

And that’s a long-winded way of saying I can’t get as upset as I thought I was going to about this: NOLD: Feminism Hurts Modern-Day Relationships. It got some wider attention and became kind of a big internet deal on Friday. It’s written by a college senior named Zach Nold, for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s daily paper, and it starts like this:

Feminism has met its goals and women are now equal with men as they should be.

Yes, he really said that, and no, there were no commas, and the rest of the article is exactly as incoherent as you’d expect anything that started with a preposition that ridiculous to be. It seems that his evidence that men and women are equal now (it’s so hard to even freaking type that) is total number of jobs, with no mention of income or any of the non-employment-opportunity based ways in which men continue to dominate women. Because men and women are equal, Nold says, feminists continuing to be feminists are doing so with the goal of becoming more than equal, of “pushing men off the platform,” and are “ruining modern relationships.”

It’s pure shit, all the way through. I guess the one saving grace is that it’s almost completely incoherent shit; I assume if he’d been more capable of saying what he really meant, it’d really piss you off. Jezebel was really pissed off anyway, understandably.

I was all set to rip into him too, but it turns out I can’t (or not any more than I just did), because Abby.

Now, Nold is a senior, not a freshman, and there can be massive differences between 18 and 21 or 22. And it’s not just one misguided piece, like Abby’s; here’s one that says poor people shouldn’t get to vote, and Jezebel found some pretty disgusting tweets. He’s clearly pretty set in his ways, and those ways are pretty terrifying.

He’s also a college kid, though, and college kids are stupid. I was stupid at that age (in softer but not altogether different ways). People change all the time, and completely; that’s a big part of what I think college, and the few years after college, are for. Considering that — remembering Abby — I’m not comfortable condemning this kid for writing a crap article he’s completely unqualified to write and of which he will probably be completely ashamed in a year or five (and with Abby, of course, it was a few months). I mean, even Limbaugh would struggle a bit to get away with this sort of drivel; this is the stuff of awful websites hidden away in the mildewy corners of the internet where men complain about how women are sluts because they (the men) had a spouse who wouldn’t deal with their abuse anymore, or because women seem to them to be willing to sleep with everyone but those men, that sort of thing (if you want to just hate everyone forever, google “misandry” and scroll down past the Wikipedia and dictionary entries). He might turn out to be one of Those Guys, but I’m not going to assume he is now. Too young, too dumb. It’s a problem that he’s a senior English major who writes this poorly, I suppose, maybe that can’t be fixed, but he’s still got time to figure out the bigger things (that’s pretty much a life-long deal, not that he’s not much farther behind right now than most).

I’d rather ask a few different questions. Like: why are newspapers still doing point/counterpoints (the article by the young woman representing the inarguably correct side can be found here; it’s pretty solid)? They work only when both writers firmly, legitimately believe their side of things and both sides can be competently argued with a straight face — I’m sure the first was met here, the second clearly was not. (They also work if the publication is The Onion, which is just another way of saying that serious point/counterpoints are almost always stupid.)

Second: the Nebraskan is a daily serving a school with ten times the enrollment of my alma mater. Shouldn’t they have a faculty adviser who (if he or she glances at these things and is even halfway competent) might have noticed, even if multiple layers of student-editors didn’t, that a point/counterpoint wherein the white conservative dude argues that feminism is over forever probably isn’t a great idea?

Third, maybe most important: does everything need to be online? I suppose it does, but if so, does it need to be quite so freely available? These are not journalists; they’re college students, and with maybe five or six exceptions a year nationwide, they’re not capable of saying anything that educates or informs or even really interests anyone beyond the students, faculty and alumni of their own schools. Slap a password on that thing, at least. There’s no likely benefit to having this stuff out there in the larger world, and there’s a lot of potential harm to the dumb kid who, let’s say, writes a terrible and senseless “opinion” article that gets picked up by Jezebel.

We weren’t on the internet in 2000, or barely (it wasn’t searchable; I think it all went up in PDF-like format on the student government site). Make it five or ten years later, and Abby, briefly the laughingstock of the school, may have become the laughingstock of the whole internet; that itself may have forced her in a different direction, stifled all that awesome growth she experienced almost immediately thereafter, changed the whole course of her life.

It’s important to address horrible, laughable-on-their-face ideas like the ones that show up in Nold’s article. I just don’t know how I feel about making the school’s issue the entire internet’s issue, and I know I don’t like taking it all out on the kid himself.