Friday, 1 February 2008

"Quotations" and social proof

One of the things that has really started to bother me lately is the use of quotations to bolster arguments. Again this is something I am guilty of myself, and many a paper I have written in the past has relied on a fairly extensive use of quotes. But increasingly I am trying to stop myself from simply reusing someone else's words in order to strengthen my line of argument.

I can see several problems with using quotes.

1. You may not have understood the quotation properly. The original writer/speaker might have expressed themself unclearly, or you may have missed the point that they were trying to make, perhaps by reading their words too literally. Either way it is a danger.

2. The context is hugely important. Stating the blindingly obvious, the UK in 2008 is not the UK in 1945, our standard of living has changed dramatically, as has the global situation we face. Therefore it is entirely logical that a statement of political stategy that was reasonable in 1945 is unreasonable now. To remove a quote from its context may therefore make it meaningless.

3. The use of quotes, in my opinion, is usually an exercise in social proof. We quote figures who are widely respected because their reputation is a seal of trustworthiness that we add to our argument. In our narrative they are a character who can be trusted. But their words may not actually prove anything.

For example, suppose I said I have just discovered the following passage in a lost essay written by Karl Marx:

"It is possibe, if unlikely, that a capitalist system may be able to sustain economic growth to the extent that the material condition of the proletariat improves dramatically. In such a scenario the proletariat's relationship to the means of production would be unchanged, but the nature of proletarian consciousness determined by significantly changed material conditions may give rise to a pragmatic mentality that seeks incremental reform rather than revolutionary transformation. If such a condition were to occur it may not be unreasonable for the proletariat to adjust its political programme accordingly."

If this quote genuinely was from Marx it could be used as social proof that social democratic politics was a justifiable approach in a country with high living standards for working people. Unfortunately the quote isn't Marx, it's me, but does the logic of the argument lose any strength because of it? It shouldn't do should it, but it does feel like it has lost power when you know it's not a quote from anyone important. That's because social proof is another example of us using a short-cut to understand something. The writer/speaker hallmark is what we are using to judge the quote by, not the actual content.


Charlie Marks said...

Thing is, Tom, I trust Karl Marx more than I trust you.

He and Engels became cognisant of the effect Britian's empire had on the leadership of the unions. Let's not forget, there is no "capitalism on one country"! They supported the battle for democratic rights - and in those days, "social democracy" meant socialism, proper anti-capitalist socialism. Both Karl and Freddy thought that the struggle for the working class to obtain a parliamentary majority was important, and that with this majority there could be a democratisation of the state - as evidenced by the short lived Paris Commune in their day. I must say, as a Marxist, that in this neoliberal England, some old-fashioned Labourite "social democracy" would be welcome because it would immediately benefit the class of which you and i are members.

As for quotes, I use quotes because a) they are from people who are speaking on a subject as an authority - which is to say, they have expertise, or b) they are saying something that I believe, but in a more succinct way than I ever could, and let's face it, if it's already been said, and better, why not just copy it?

Tom P said...

I'm shocked that you don't rank me as an equal to Karl Marx ;-)

In general I just don't think that quotes 'prove' anything, and as such they are a way of seemingly improving the legitimacy of the argument without actually adding any evidence. I agree that they can improve the way an argument is articulated but again that doesn't improve the factual content.

I guess that's fine for an essay or a polemic (and that can help win support to our position) but it doesn't actually help us very much in the more important business of making change.