by Jay Johansen | Feb 21, 2005
One of the most common mistakes in trying to interpret a document (or other body of information) is to take text out of context. That is, if you take one short section out of some larger collection, it may be that the short section will sound like it is saying something totally different from what the author or speaker actually intended.
Sometimes this is done carelessly. Other times it is done deliberately: an innocent statement is made to sound sinister to hurt someone's reputation, a harsh review from a respected critic is made to sound positive, etc.
I recently came across an example of taking things out of context on the History Channel that just left me laughing, and reminded me of two others equally silly.
History Channel had a program on the life of Benjamin Franklin. In the course of it they mentioned that Franklin was responsible for some of the language of the Declaration of Independence.
Thomas Jefferson wrote the first draft of the Declaration. This was then reviewed by a number of other people, including Franklin, who made various changes.
In Jefferson's original draft he wrote, "We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable ..." and then went on to say that people have certain rights. At Franklin's suggestion this was changed to "We hold these truths to be self-evident ..." That much is accepted history.
According to the History Channel program, Franklin wanted this change because the word "sacred" implied that these rights came from God, but, as one of their talking-heads put it, Franklin believed that "rights come from the consent of the governed". That is, our rights are not defined by some God, but by ourselves.
One could make the tangential objection that this doesn't even make sense. We have human rights because we consent to accept them? Why would someone refuse to consent to having rights? Presumably the alternative to that idea would be that the government could force us to accept rights that we don't want to have. Like, the government might insist that we have freedom of speech, while a citizen demands that he be thrown in jail for voicing his opinion, maybe tortured and killed. But let's give them the benefit of the doubt on that. Maybe they meant to say that rights come from the concensus of the people or something like that. Like, we mutually agree to give each other certain rights.
But the more fundamental problem is that this interpretation takes Franklin's change totally out of context. Read it with the next two or three clauses. "We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these rights are ..." etc. So, after Franklin's change, where do our rights come from? From our "Creator". Surely the History Channel does not deny that "Creator" in this context is clearly a title for God. If Franklin had objected to the idea that rights come from God, he would have insisted that the reference to a "Creator" be removed, too. Indeed, "sacred" is a fairly vague word. We would not be surprised or confused if someone said, "Our most sacred rights were decided by a majority vote". But to say that our rights were granted to us by our Creator is pretty unambiguous: God decides what rights people have, not the government, not even a majority vote.
Indeed, this is the whole point of the Declaration of the Independence. The king of England said that citizens had those rights that the government chose to give them. And what the government gave, it could take away. But the American revolutionaries said, No, you do not decide our rights: our rights were given to us by God. The government may respect the rights that God gave us, or it may refuse to respect those rights. But if the government fails to respect our God-given rights, it forfeits its claim to being legitimate. This was the whole justification for rebelling against the British government.
Franklin was certainly not a Fundamentalist Christian, and if Franklin was alive today, I doubt that he would be a member of the Christian Right. But he wasn't a secularist either.
Oh, perhaps I should add that we could certainly debate where human rights come from -- or any number of other philosophical questions. But let's not muddy the waters by falsely representing what famous thinkers of the past have said on the subject. If you disagree with them, fine, say so. But what's the point of pretending they agree with you when they don't?
As I'm sure you're aware, gun control is a hotly debated issue. One argument routinely given by opponents of gun control is that the Second Amendment to the Constitution guarantees the citizen's right to own a gun. This right can only be taken away by a Constitutional amendment, and not by simple legislation or court decree.
I once read an interesting rebuttal to this argument. He quoted the Second Amendment as follows: "A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right ... to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed." So you see, he said, the intent of the Second Amendment was to protect the right of the states to have a militia, not the right of individual citizens to own guns.
The catch to this interpretation is those three little dots. The words he left out were, "of the people", that is, the full text is, "the right OF THE PEOPLE to keep and bear arms ..." etc. It is difficult to see how "the right of the people to keep and bear arms" can reasonably be understood to mean "the right of a state government to keep and bear arms".
We could certainly debate whether it is a good idea for citizens to have a right to own guns, or if the Second Amendment should be repealed. But it says what it says.
And just by the way, even if it was true that the purpose of the Second Amendment was to guarantee the right of the states to keep a militia, then our Federal government is in gross violation of the Constitution, because in 1916 it passed the National Defense Act, that put control of the state militias under the national government.
The Bible claims that Jesus came back from the dead. If true, this is certainly an extraordinary occurrence, and many people do not believe that this ever really happened. Many alternative stories have been proposed to explain the historical facts.
One writer proposed that it was all the result of a gigantic mistake: That when Jesus' followers came to visit the grave after his burial, they accidentally visited the wrong grave, and when they found it was empty, jumped to the conclusion that he had risen from the dead. He backed this up with the Bible. When the two Marys went to the grave and found it empty, a mysterious man tells them -- and here he quotes Matthew 28:6 -- "He is not here ... Come, see the place where they layed him." You see, he says, they had gone to the wrong grave, and he was trying to point them to the right one. As in, "See, he's buried over there, you're in the wrong place."
But again, the problem with this is in the words that he left out and replaced with the three dots. Those words are, "he is risen, just as he said".
I can certainly comprehend someone saying that he doesn't believe the Bible's account, that he thinks this was all written by people trying to start a myth or some such. We could debate the historical and documentary evidence. But ... to say that he believes the beginning of a sentence and the end of a sentence, but not the middle? And he's now going to reinterpret the meaning of the end of the sentence based on dropping out the middle? That's just silly.
© 2005 by Jay Johansen