Abortion rights are under threat. There is no middle ground on this issue, and in the wake of a restrictive Texas law, both sides are gearing up their rhetoric. Does this justify distorting what a historical figure said? No. Never.
The ACLU decided to make Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s words more modern and inclusive
Here’s a tweet from the ACLU quoting the late liberal Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg:
Pay close attention to the words in brackets. Ginsburg had actually argued abortion cases for the ACLU. Here’s exactly what she said about her approach to abortion in testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee:
The decision whether or not to bear a child is central to a woman’s life, to her well-being and dignity. It is a decision she must make for herself. When Government controls that decision for her, she is being treated as less than a fully adult human responsible for her own choices.
The ACLU has changed “woman” to “person,” “her” to “their” and “people,” and “she is” to “they are.” This is wrong.
Bracketed text in quotes should never change the meaning
Why did the ACLU change the quote? Because now, in an age with many transgender people, trans men may have a uterus and become pregnant. The modified quote recognizes that reality.
But that’s not what Justice Ginsburg said.
Her use of words like “woman,” “she,” and “her” was intended to get us to think carefully about who these abortion laws affect — overwhelmingly, women. At the time she wrote this, I’m certain that trans people were not part of her thoughts. Amending the quote to make it recognize a different and more inclusive current reality distorts her thoughts.
Here’s the rule on brackets in quotes: you can use them only to make a quote make sense when it depends on information you’ve chosen to omit. For example, suppose a baseball coach says this:
“David Ortiz is one of my favorite players, and he was really tuned in tonight. He knew exactly what pitch was coming, and he hit it long and hard, right on the barrel.”
If a journalist only wants to use the second sentence, they can replace the “he” with the person it refers to:
“[David Ortiz] knew exactly what pitch was coming, and he hit it long and hard, right on the barrel.”
The revised quote doesn’t change the meaning at all. If the coach reads it in the newspaper he’s not going to say “Hey, you changed my words.” He’s going to say, “Yeah, that’s pretty much what I said.”
I’ve seen brackets used to turn present tense statements into past tense, to insert names for pronouns (as in the example above), and to interpolate comments from the person doing the quoting, comments which clarify the meaning of what you’re reading. None of these uses distorted the original meaning or context of the quotes.
The same is true of ellipses (. . . ) that replace words not included. You can use ellipses to make a quote shorter or bring together bits of sentences separated by material that’s not relevant. But you can’t use them to distort the meaning (by, for example, deleting “not” and replacing it with “. . .”).
Because Ginsburg was talking about women, the quote must accurately quote that. She wasn’t talking about women and trans men, and changing the quote that way changes her meaning.
Here’s a similar example, from the 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech of Martin Luther King Jr.
But one hundred years [after the Emancipation Proclamation], the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.
I replaced the word “later” with “[after the Emancipation Proclamation],” since that was what Dr. King was referring to in a previous sentence I didn’t want to quote. This doesn’t change the meaning — it just clarifies what happened 100 years earlier that King was talking about.
However, I did not change “Negro” to “Black” or “African American.” At the time, King was speaking to the condition of the race he knew as “the Negro.” While this usage sounds archaic or distorted to our ears in the 21st century, it is how he thought of the challenge in the 1960s. Changing “Negro” to “Black person” changes the historical context — and the poetry of King’s speech as well. So the honest thing is to leave “Negro” as “Negro,” rather than catapulting King into 2020s lingo as if nothing had changed since he spoke.
It would be arrogant of me to change Dr. King’s language, as if I knew better how he would speak than he knew himself. And it was arrogant of the ACLU to change Justice Ginsburg’s quote, for the same reason.
But what if it’s justified . . .
Maybe you are a trans person who would feel excluded by Ginsburg’s statement. Maybe you believe that you know, as a reliable defender of gender rights, what she would say. Can you update the quote?
Doing so marks you as someone who is attempting to change the historical record.
People’s words are their words (especially after they are dead and have no further way to defend themselves). You can write about what they said. You can contend that they would speak differently now. You can cite Ginsburg’s dissent supporting a transgender boy’s right to use the boys’ bathroom.
But you cannot put words in people’s mouths, no matter how just you feel your cause is.
Because by doing so, you are lying about the historical record.
Once you start lying, it is not possible to have a principled discussion. No matter what else is at stake, your first commitment must be to the truth . . . because once inaccurate and false statements enter the discussion, there is no legitimacy to what comes after.
So swear to tell the whole truth. That includes quoting people accurately, and not distorting their words with brackets. Otherwise, you’re just rolling around the muck, which doesn’t help your cause, no matter how just you believe it is.