The rise of the 'context-ectomy'

Posted: August 16, 2012

"This would be the best of all possible worlds if there were no religion in it." - John Adams

By Steve Young

OMG! John Adams, Founding Father and second president of the United States, actually said the world would be better without religion? Yes, he did.

But did he mean it? In context, what Adams said was, "Twenty times in the course of my late reading have I been upon the point of breaking out, 'This would be the best of all possible worlds if there were no religion in it!' But in this exclamation I should have been as fanatical as Bryant or Cleverly . Without religion, this world would be something not fit to be mentioned in polite company - I mean hell."

Despite the clarity of the meaning in context, if Adams ran for president today, you can be sure that Thomas Jefferson's super-PAC would have run a network-ful of commercials using the above quote to portray him as "antireligion."

Many would find this willful misinterpretation of Adams wrong and even repulsive. So why doesn't it upset people when their favored political candidates similarly distort opponents' statements?

Not long ago, President Obama's campaign jumped on Mitt Romney's clearly out-of-context "I like to fire people." Romney's campaign was quick to take advantage of Obama's "If you've got a business, you didn't build that." Neither observation was meant as the other side characterized it.

How many degrees of separation must there be between a quote and its context before it becomes a lie?

Such "context-ectomies," however dishonest, are often justified as revealing a greater truth about an opponent. This relies on the idea of truthiness, a word popularized by Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert, which the "truthy" website Wikipedia defines as "characterizing a 'truth' that a person claims to know intuitively 'from the gut' ... without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts."

Whatever one calls it, it's not the truth. And it's not just negative campaigning, which can be factual. Context-ectomies are out-and-out deceit.

Why is it done? That's easy. It works, supplying partisans with talking points with which to Facebook their friends and damn the enemy.

The larger question is: What makes voters receptive to such bad-faith attempts to influence opinion? Why are we so quick to rationalize our guys' misrepresentations while condemning opponents'? The frightening implication is that few people care as much about the truth as they do about winning.

While many partisans don't necessarily care about the veracity of their candidates' campaigns, the campaigns do care about being seen as honest, believe it or not. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor of communication and the director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, said, "In this election season, the fact-checkers ( among them) played a role in Romney's revision of his claim to have ... created 100,000 jobs at Bain, while Obama's ads changed claims that Romney outsourced jobs to an allegation that his firms outsourced."

Still, the fact-checkers can't hold a candle to the influence voters would have if they refused to accept such truthiness - which would mean calling out their own candidates for lying.

Steve Young is the author of "Great Failures of the Extremely Successful" (

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