"If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter," said Martin Luther King Jr.
There has recently been some controversy over the inscription that paraphrases this quote on the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, d.c. Many commentators have argued that the paraphrased version of King's quote is a misrepresentation of what he actually said. The paraphrased version reads "I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness." According to the author Maya Angelou, this makes the great man sound "like an arrogant twit."
This is an indication of a wider trend where quotations harbouring great thought are shortened for the sake of brevity. This usually takes the punch out of the original version. Sometimes the quotes are also taken out of context and sometimes simply misattributed to famous figures.
Gandhi's most popular line, "Be the change you wish to see in the world," is perfect for a bumper sticker or a coffee cup, but it turns out there is no evidence that he said it. In an op-ed for the New York Times, Brian Morton suggests that the closest verifiable remark from Gandhi that could resemble this quote is: "If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him . . . We need not wait to see what others do." Here Gandhi seems to be suggesting more than just changing oneself to change the world, rather he suggests we need to change to change the tendencies of the world.
In America, it has become commonplace to falsely attribute remarks to the founding fathers. The far right in America likes to promote historical literacy and attend rallies armed with placards adorned with such lines. One example is the following quotation attributed to James Madison: "We have staked the whole future of American civilization, not upon the power of government, far from it. We've staked the future of all our political institutions upon our capacity . . . to sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God." This remark is used by people to allege America's Christian heritage. The editors of The Papers of James Madison have publicly stated they have not found anything written by Madison that remotely says anything like the alleged remark. Despite this the attribution can be found on many websites. It has also been used by Rush Limbaugh on his radio show.
The Bible is ripe for misquotations. Some of them have been ingrained in our vernacular. For example, "spare the rod, spoil the child," and "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," but neither line can be found in any translation.
One of the most vexing example of misattribution is using Albert Einstein's quotes by people of religious inclination to convince other people that Einstein believed in a god. Einstein scholars have demonstrated again and again that Einstein did not believe in a personal god, and when he did use the word 'god' he used it as a rhetorical device or meant in the sense that deists (like Spinoza) used it.
It is unfortunate that some thoughts are misquoted in popular imagination. Quotes containing complex thoughts are watered down and shortened and their meaning is changed or just simply misattributed.
Misquotes reinvent a person, so that he can fit the mould of what people expect a great person would say. Why would Nelson Mandela tell us to feel, "Brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?" (a famously misattributed quote).
Politics has made an art of the practice of misquotes. They are usually an attempt to use or annex a person for some purpose. It illustrates the intellectual dishonesty and sheer ill will of the people who use false attribution to advance their purpose or to misrepresent a person.