Saturday, November 16, 2013

When Quotes Go Wrong


Don't be fooled by the viral graphic in this post. Al Pacino did not say those words. Maybe it would have been neat if he had. They sound tough, like the tough little kid we might imagine Al Pacino was. But the more you think about the quote, when you imagine the kid asking for forgiveness, the quote sounds much more appropriate for a character Pacino might have played, such as Michael Corleone. But thinking about the quote some more, the words aren't as earnest as the words Michael Corleone would use. No, there's a sneaking bit of satire in them, the criticism of a certain view of God as someone who makes it okay to do anything to anyone as long as you say you're sorry. Suddenly there's no kid involved in this quote at all. Now there's some wisecracker lurking behind them.

A little googling reveals that the quote is close to something Emo Philips said in a comedy routine. This origin makes complete sense. And yet... wouldn't it have been cool if Al Pacino had said this? If Pacino had said this, it would have affirmed some kind of gut-sensed psychopathology that many of us nurse. "Yeah, screw you, Right and Wrong. I get the bike. God can sort out the prissy details." Somehow, for a moment, Al Pacino has affirmed our inner mobster. And, I regret to say, the words hit us a lot harder when accompanied by a picture of Pacino than they do by one of a skinny, pale guy wearing a big wig. Sorry, Emo.

There are lots of quotes that get better when the wrong person says them. My unscientific sense is that such misattributions account for 2% of all Facebook posts (don't quote me). This sort of meming has been going on at least since the advent of email, and it only got deeper when it became easier for people to alter photographs with cheap software. It used to be all quotes people wanted you to pay attention to were attributed incorrectly to Winston Churchill, George Carlin or Mark Twain. Lately there's a real psychological sophistication in this practice.  Wiggy, sort-of-scientific spiritual stuff sounds best misattributed to Albert Einstein and a picture of his frayed hair. Sometimes a vaguely racist rant has more cache when misattributed to Bill Cosby pictured frowning as he lounges on a studio set couch. People who agree with the words can say, "See, a black guy said that negative stuff about black people. So it must be true."

Don't expect anything to change except for the memes to become more compelling, so watch out. If you think someone didn't say something, chances are you're right.

The memers and the misquoters resemble the faux Pacino who didn't really say what they say he said. They steal a quote and ride off in glee, throwing the moral consequences to the wind. I still kind of wish Pacino had said he stole that bicycle. But now that I think of it, is that really even Pacino's picture?


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