Last week, George Will demonstrated yet again his contempt for honest discussion. He selectively quoted Jim Webb’s discussion with President Bush in order to make the Senator-elect from Virginia look like a boor. But luckily one can easily double-check the facts and the context. While this quote-picking is primarily a factual question, insofar as it’s an attempt to edit the words of another to weaken their position, it’s a straw man tactic. Consider, then, the following:

>Until June, the school district’s Web site declared that “cultural racism” includes “emphasizing individualism as opposed to a more collective ideology,” “having a future time orientation” (planning ahead) and “defining one form of English as standard.” The site also asserted that only whites can be racists, and disparaged assimilation as the “giving up” of one’s culture. After this propaganda provoked outrage, the district, saying it needed to “provide more context to readers” about “institutional racism,” put up a page saying that the district’s intention is to avoid “unsuccessful concepts such as a melting pot or colorblind mentality.”

In the first place it’s hard to check this because that content is no longer available. In light of his recent behavior, we cannot presume that Will has been fair or honest in his representation of the content of that page. Since Will’s intention in writing an op-ed ought to be to convince one who disagrees with him rather than inflame the passions of those who share his view, he should engage the substance of the opposition’s view. So he should present a longer unredacted section of text. If space does not permit it, then perhaps he should reconsider the way he makes his case.

2 thoughts on “Quote-picking”

  1. I’m not sure Will has the burden of supplying complete transcript of his sources. Sure, we should be skeptical given his tendency to a cavalier attitude to the rigors of scholarly representation, but we should probably have that attitude to all op-ed pieces. I think the standard you set for Will and documentation is one that no columnist or editorialist can meet. These are argumentative pieces, but they are not scholarly essays.

    If it is in fact the case that Will has grossly misrepresented the web-site’s position and concluded something on that basis, then we should criticize his argument for being a straw man, but I am wary of accepting that his dropping of a phrase from the Webb transcript can provide reason to suspect that Will is arguing fallaciously. This seems a dangerous standard to set.

  2. Good points, but I’d say that particular tactic is inherently flawed. While we can’t expect him to have the room in an op-ed to cite all of the relevant content, he shouldn’t pick and choose items he considers to be inflammatory out of context and expect us to take him seriously. If his argument is going to depend in part on that strategy, it’s going to be weak.

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