Using Robert J. Gula's Nonsense Red Herrings, Straw Men and Sacred Cows: How We Abuse Logic in Our Everyday Language as my guide, I've spent much of this semester blogging about fallacies. Occasionally, I've deviated from this topic, but for my final posts of the semester, I've decided to return to it.
Of all the fallacies that you will encounter in college, none of them seems as obviously immoral as the ones associated with quotation. Gula identifies two such fallacies. For the sake of simplicity, I'll refer to these as the Fallacy of Quoting out of Context and the Fallacy of Selective Quoting.
In this post, I will address the Fallacy of Quoting out of Context. In my next post, I will focus on the latter.
When you take a first-year composition course, you learn about the importance of proper citation. You learn the difference between a quotation and a paraphrase. You learn about the severe academic consequences of plagiarism.
But aside from the academic consequences associated with using another person's words or ideas without including an adequate citation, are the moral consequences of using another person's words in a deceptive fashion, all the while still following the protocols of an acceptable citation system.
I'm sure most of us would readily agree with Gula when he writes, "Quoting out of context can turn a person's words against him" (92).
The indignation you feel is particularly intense when something you said or wrote is taken out of context in order to convey an attitude or behavior that you neither expressed or performed, is it not? Sometimes, if what you said or wrote is quoted out of context, it can be misrepresented to such an extent that it conveys a meaning which is opposite the meaning you actually articulated. To illustrate this fallacious tactic, let's look at the following example.
Suppose you overhear a roommate whom you don't particular care for say the following sentences.
"Let's steal the final exam. All we have to do is get the flash drive she keeps it on. She'll never know."
Sounds fairly incriminating, does it not?
If his words are quoted verbatim, then it seems like the roommate is conspiring to commit academic fraud. If a professor or an administrator were to ask you whether your roommate ever planned on committing academic fraud, you could think back to these sentences and say: "Yeah, I heard him discussing it with my own ears. One morning I heard him say, 'Let's steal the final exam. All we have to do is get the flash drive she keeps it on. She'll never know.'"
But suppose you also know that your roommate is an aspiring dramatist who writes and rehearses his plays in your living room. Suppose further that you also know the plot synopsis of his most recent play: a group of students plan to steal a final exam and tragedy ensues.
You've heard of the colloquialism that distinguishes between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law?
Well, here we have a situation where a conflict arises between the letter of meaning and the spirit of meaning. According to the letter of meaning, your roommate intends to commit academic fraud. According to spirit of meaning, your roommate intends to develop an interesting dramatic plot. To interpret correctly the meaning of his words requires the appropriate context. To ignore or suppress this context would distort your roommate's meaning in a rhetorically significant situation--the situation being the hearing on whether your roommate ever plotted to commit academic fraud.
To quote someone out of context is not an act of plagiarism; it is, however, a fallacy, thus it should be avoided.