“Say What?” Why Context Matters

We all love a good quote. Whether it’s inspirational or funny, thought-provoking or heart-warming; there really is no better way to add impetus to an article or express our thoughts on social media than by sharing a good quote. And it packs an extra punch if the quote comes from someone with a bit of power behind their name. Someone like Abraham Lincoln for instance…

“The secret to success is to be willing, at any moment, to sacrifice all that you are now for all that you could become”. ~ Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln is the very embodiment of success. Born into a poor family, Lincoln somehow managed to educate himself and rose through the ranks of society to become a lawyer, a party leader, a state legislator and finally, the 16th president of the United States of America. Along the way he abolished slavery, strengthened the national government, modernised the economy and preserved the Union as victor in the American Civil War. If anyone is an authority on the secret to success, it’s him. And he really sums it up quite beautifully with those words. It’s about ambition and it’s about sacrifice. It leaves one feeling very motivated and inspired, wouldn’t you say?

But what if I told you that Abraham Lincoln isn’t actually responsible for the quote? What if I told you that it was actually Adolf Hitler that gave us that insight into success? Suddenly it becomes a whole lot less inspirational and a whole lot more sinister. While Hitler too rose from humble beginnings to become the leader of a nation, his cruel abuse of power inflicted human suffering on an unprecedented scale and he is almost universally regarded as the most evil and immoral person in recorded history. He is not someone with whom we would wish to equate success; certainly not in the sense where we would be using his insight to motivate our own success.

Don't believe everything you read

And so we have a most unwelcome conundrum on our hands. What was originally an uplifting and inspiring quotation has suddenly become ominous and chilling, and all with a simple change in context. How can context change something so much? Would you feel more or less inspired if the quote came from Aristotle, Michael Jordan, John Lennon or H.G. Wells? That would all depend on how highly you value philosophy, sport, music or literature. Even then, if you valued music above all else, would the quote mean the same to you if it came from 50 Cent? If you’re a sports fan and the words were spoken by Lance Armstrong would you need to know if he had said it pre or post doping scandal before you decided if it was motivational or not?

The question is, should context matter? Aren’t those words, all strung together in a nicely put sentence meaningful in their own right? Why should it matter who said them? Because the truth is, no one did. Well you have, now that you’ve read this blog post. And former NFL player Eric Thomas said something very similar but you’ve probably never heard of him or his achievements. These words really do seem to get to the crux of what it takes to be successful, so why do we only give them credit when they’re being said by the right person?

In 2007 the Washington Post ran a social experiment in an attempt to determine the effect that context has on a person’s perception, preferences and priorities. They sent a man to play the violin in a Washington Metro station on a cold morning in January, during rush hour. He played six Bach pieces and was there for about 45 minutes. An estimated 1100 people passed him by, most of them on their way to work. After 45 minutes only 20 people had paused to drop change and less than 10 people had actually stopped to listen to him play. When he was finished, no one applauded.


Joshua Bell plays in Washington Metro Station

What passers-by didn’t know was that the man playing the violin was Grammy Award winning violinist, Joshua Bell, and he had been playing some of the most intricate pieces of music ever written, on a violin worth $3.5 million. Just three days before he had played to a packed Boston Symphony Hall where the cheapest tickets went for $100. These commuters had the chance to listen to him play for free but the vast majority barely gave him a second glance. Yes, they were probably rushing to get work, but if someone had told them who he was, provided some context, do you think they would have stopped?

When the Washington Post managed to interview some of the commuters who had barely acknowledged Joshua’s presence, it turned out that had they known of this once in a lifetime opportunity before them, they would have stopped to listen to him play, even though they had somewhere to be. That is to say, a change in context would have lead to a change in priorities. And so it would seem that context doesn’t just influence the way in which we interpret words, but also the way in which we experience and appreciate our surroundings.

beautiful oil painting Leonid Afremov

The philosopher Immanuel Kant believed that our ability to appreciate beauty – a beautiful piece of music for instance, a painting, or even a quote – is intertwined with our ability to make moral judgements and that the value we place on something will always depend on the conditions under which we encounter it. Thus, if the conditions change, our judgement and appreciation of it will change too, even though the thing itself remains the same. The music that Joshua Bell produces will always be beautiful, but whether or not we appreciate it will depend on the context. So too, the quote mentioned above will always aptly define one secret to success, but whether or not we appreciate its meaning will depend on who said it.

How then should we go about our lives so as to ensure that we never miss out on hearing Joshua Bell play for free? I think that we need to be more aware of context and our own ability to shape and define it. We don’t have to believe something just because someone smart said it and we don’t have to like something just because an expert made it. We are rational beings, capable of making moral judgements based on reason. It is not beyond the realms of possibility to be critical of context and look beyond circumstance to the meaning contained in something in and of itself. After all, if we don’t take the time to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world, what else do you think we’re missing out on?

Do you think meaning depends on context? Do you think we’re capable of looking beyond context? Let us know with a comment below…


4 responses to ““Say What?” Why Context Matters

  1. This is a brilliant piece. It resonates with me because I loathe the memes that are so freely shared on the net that have been fabricated and or borrowed. People are at risk of being entirely manipulated by words and they have a scary lack of discernment. They accept and replicate blindly. There was a recent story about the lauded graffiti artist Banksy who set up a stall and offered his art for $60 a piece. They usually sell fro Hundreds of thousands. Only 6 or so people bought from him. Context is everything and needs much more scrutiny than it is being afforded.

  2. Language alone is ambiguous and context helps describe an intended communication. But by ignoring the context you create your own new context and create a new communication which does not need to be at all connected to the original communication. When the finest wines were presented to South Africans along with more common wines (none with labels), the drinkers showed preference for the cheaper common wines. The conclusion is that the original context was faulty – fine wines are cleverly marketed overpriced wines. If I wanted to hear Joshua Bell’s quality sound I’d Youtube it, and not dress up in a monkey suit to be seen with the exclusive elite. I would have walked passed because I prefer blues, and the blues player doesn’t need to be talented in the finest details.

  3. The issue of the relationship between meaning and context is critical when looking at politics. Just look at the now clichéd saying about “one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter”. More and more these days, as I watch the evening news, I find myself utterly baffled as to which prominent world leaders are the “terrorist” and which ones “freedom fighters”. As one watches/reads the news it is increasingly important to somehow collect diverse sources in order to set a somewhat appropriate and relevant context. The danger in not setting this context is the possibility of taking “facts” at face value (taking things at face value, in the example of the terrorist/freedom fighter dichotomy, may be fatal).

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