It’s a disturbing thing to find out that one’s favorite quotation from some well-known authority turns out not to have been said by him or her—at least not in the exact wording or in the assumed meaning that gets repeated. Rick never actually says, “Play it again, Sam,” as a single sentence in Casablanca, and “Elementary, my dear Watson” never gets said together in the canonical Sherlock Holmes stories. Of greater consequence, Machiavelli never wrote the pithy phrase that the ends justify the means. And if he had, the saying wouldn’t mean exactly what is often believed these day. Justify would have had the sense of test or examine the methods used, rather than automatically excusing them.
The Internet has made this misattribution so much more common. And what is worse, sayings get added to pictures to create memes. The word, meme, itself is an example of distorted usage, since its creator, biologist Richard Dawkins, coined the term as ideas that have the ability to be transmitted from person to person, a parallel concept to genes being selected by fitness to the environment.
With regard to guns, one such meme is the saying attributed to Freud that “A fear of weapons is a sign of retarded sexual and emotional maturity.” Given the constant anatomical references made by gun control advocates, this feels like just the quotation to bring out in response. But things aren’t so simple.
For one thing, Freud never actually said or wrote those words. It comes instead from attorney and gun rights researcher, Don B. Kates, in an analysis he makes of the penis theory of gun ownership, “Guns, Murders, and the Constitution,” in 1990. Kates criticizes the claim, one that is raised all too often, that owning guns is a compensation for penile inadequacy. He points out the lack of evidence that gun owners have any unique characteristic that makes them more or less likely than any other group to suffer from that condition and observes that collectors of all sorts of things take special care of their property and asks whether coin collectors can be accused of compensating for a anatomical lack.
On the question of sexual symbolism and guns, Kates cites Freud’s remarks on sticks, umbrellas, and trees as penile references in dreams to say that there is again nothing unique about guns in psychological terms. The specific statement that got turned into a meme belongs to Kates, not to Freud, and is Kates’s assessment of Freud’s ideas, not something the Viennese psychoanalyst ever said himself.
This deflates the potency of the meme. But more importantly, it reminds us of the risks associated with appeals to authorities. People famous for their contributions to the cultural or intellectual wealth of humanity gain an accretion of sayings or actions on them that we feel they ought to have said or done without much effort at verification.
And being famous doesn’t provide any special authority that obscurity denies. Freud is regarded as a founder of modern psychology, but many of his ideas have proved to have no basis in reality. The science fiction writer, Michael Crichton, in an interview with Charlie Rose, called Freud the greatest novelist of the twentieth century, given the way Freud spun stories, rather than engaging in what would today be recognized as scientific research.
But while his ideas have penetrated our culture, that doesn’t make him fair game for misquotation, especially if we care about making valid arguments. Best practice is to check sources before offering them in support of the positions we take.
To sum this up, I’m tempted to cite Abraham Lincoln’s remark that “the problem with Internet quotes is that you can’t always depend on their accuracy,” but perhaps that wouldn’t quite be right.
The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of Guns.com.