Kim: Out of context is out of mind

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Amazon reviews may leave you with the impression that Hillary Clinton’s new book, “What Happened”, is either the worst book ever written or the greatest. It was neither; I thought the book, while sometimes bitter in tone, was still an interesting insight into her mind and an illuminating explanation of the circumstances of the 2016 Presidential Election. Actually, I felt she was occasionally justified in being bitter, at least considering how misrepresented she was by the media and her opponents, and how much more misrepresented she will continue to be. Her words were actively taken out of context to be used to depict her negatively.

Clinton’s coal miner quote is one instance when her words were misconstrued by the public. The version you are likely to be familiar with is: “We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and companies out of business.” Those words did technically come out of Clinton’s mouth, but the words were cropped out from a longer explanation. The context was that while coal miners will inevitably lose jobs if America turns to clean energy, they will not be forgotten under her administration. The words completely misrepresented her sentiment.

The term for what happened to Clinton is “contextomy”, and it refers to the act of cherry-picking words to use in an argument against either the person who said the words or against the argument the person made. It’s also known as “quote mining”. This differs from normal quoting because it deliberately removes the context that would change the meaning of the quote. While not illegal, contextomy is immoral. Academics believe in intellectual property, of words and thoughts being credited to the right person, but in this case the wrong meaning is being credited to the person.

To be fair, Clinton is far from the only victim of contextomy. Her campaign also created ads of Donald Trump using his quotes against him. (Then again, some of his quotes remained accurate to the spirit of what he said simply because he is a pretty outrageous character to begin with.)

But there are still others affected by contextomy. In July 2010, Breitbart.com, a far-right news site, published an article titled “Video Proof: The NAACP Awards Racism-2010”. In it were two videos, one of which showed Shirley Sherrod, the Georgia State Director of Rural Development for the USDA at the time, sharing an anecdote where she seemingly discriminated against a white farmer. In reality, the anecdote was about how she, despite having faced racism from childhood, grew against it and realized that her purpose was to help all poor people, rather than just black people. Not only that, the video was from years before she even was hired as the USDA Georgia Director. However, the video was blown out of proportion until she was asked to resign. She later settled in court for undisclosed amounts.

Examples of contextomy can be seen outside of politics as well. They are present in reviews, interviews, conspiracy theories faking legitimacy, and speech. And so, to prevent misunderstandings and the spread of misinformation, we should be wary of small quotes, ellipses and abrupt endings. Offer a little courtesy by trusting that a sound bite is not the speaker’s complete statement. People are more complex than that.