Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Responding to bin Laden's Death with a Faux King Quote?

I intend to reflect as some length about Osama bin Laden's death, especially with respect to the image (indulged repeatedly on social networking sites and elsewhere) of bin Laden roasting in hell. Unfortunately, I'm in the middle of finals week and buried in grading--and I've already spent enough time away from my grading to record a stimulating conversation (for "bloggingheads.tv") with Kathryn Gin of Princeton University about the Rob Bell controversy and the persistence of the idea of hell in American culture (I'll provide the link when it's available).

But there is something I do want to quickly address here, since I have some expertise in the work of Martin Luther King, Jr. Specifically, in the wake of many celebratory announcements of bin Laden's death on Facebook and Twitter, the following quotation, attributed to King, spread like wildfire as a status update on Facebook:
I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.
On Twitter, because of the character limits, only the first sentence was tweeted. Yesterday, Megan McArdle of The Atlantic received this message on Twitter and began to investigate. She noted in a short article that there was no evidence that these words actually came from King--and subsequently wondered why someone would attribute something like this to King falsely.

Here are the facts: Everything but the first sentence is a direct quote from King's sermon, "Loving your enemies," that is reprinted in the collection of King sermons, Strength to Love.  King liked the rhetorical power of the words so much that he reused them with slight modifications at least once, in Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? I wouldn't be surprised, given how often King reused his own words, that the same message was repeated elsewhere as well.

So, everything but the first sentence is an authentic quote from King. What about the first sentence? Although it is possible that something like those words were spoken in some obscure speech of King's, I am not familiar with it. And, with McArdle, I find the precise wording a bit too closely tailored to 9/11 and bin Laden. And I can't think of a specific context in which King would have been commenting on a camparable situation (I looked up some of his references to the Holocaust, thinking he might have said something simliar in relation to it, but found nothing resembling this quote).

So here is what I suspect happened. Someone on facebook shared their refusal to rejoice in someone's death, even Osama bin Laden's--and then explained why with a quote from King. Unfortunately, in repostings the distinction between the personal sentiment and the King quote was lost. And then, when the message moved to Twitter, only the first sentence (which didn't come from King) was tweeted and retweeted--and attributed to King.

No conspiracy, I think. And the core idea--that hate begets hate, and that to overcome hostility and bitterness and cycles of revenge, someone needs to make a deliberate choice to love--does come from King.

Addendum: I see now, looking over Megan McArdle's essay, that she has realized the same thing and offered an update. So consider this post a fuller elaboration of what happened.

Addendum #2: I've just now seen that Megan McArdle has published a further article outlining the evolution of the misquotation--which confirms my theory and adds names.

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