Selective quotation

"My position is that, regardless of the circumstances, France will vote
Jacques Chirac, President of France, 10 March 2003

The phrase "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" has been happily adopted
by many Americans and Britons as a fun way of expressing disdain for the French.
It gives them something to laugh about as they tuck into their "freedom
fries" and swill non-Gallic wine. No matter that the phrase, first uttered
by Groundskeeper Willie in The Simpsons, was surely a send-up rather
than celebration of the current mood of francophobia. Either that or Matt Groening
et al have lost their genius for razor-sharp satire and social observation.

What have the French done to deserve their pariah status? It wasn’t just the
matter of their opposing the war on Iraq – many countries did that – it was
the manner in which they appeared to do so. What more than anything enabled
critical commentators to paint the French as unreasonable in their opposition
was President Chirac’s declaration in a television interview that "regardless
of the circumstances", France would exercise its veto and vote against
any "second" UN resolution on Iraq. (In fact, Downing Street lists
ten resolutions on Iraq, including 1441, which it claims Iraq has not fully
complied with.) The remark caused outrage in Britain and America, evidence,
it was said, that France had closed its ears to reason and argument. Downing
Street called it "poisonous" and Jack Straw, the foreign secretary,
said it had made war more likely.

The problem is (as has been noted by BBC radio’s World at One and the
Guardian newspaper) that Chirac has been the victim of selective quotation.
What he actually said, in full, was: "My position is that, regardless of
the circumstances, France will vote ‘no’ because she considers this evening
that there are no grounds for waging war in order to achieve the goal we have
set ourselves, i.e. to disarm Iraq."

The crucial words here are "this evening". Even more importantly,
the discussion prior to these comments had clearly been about how France would
vote that evening (if there had been a vote), in a number of different hypothetical
circumstances, such as there being or not being a majority of nine on the security
council for a new resolution. So "regardless of the circumstances"
clearly means regardless of how other members of the council voted, and "this
evening" indicates that the stance being taken is not one that would never
be changed. (You can read the interview for yourself at

Indeed, Chirac explicitly does not rule out the eventual use of force. "France isn’t a pacifist country," he said, and it "doesn’t refuse war on principle. France considers that war is the final stage of a process."

However, by selectively quoting Chirac – pulling out a short phrase and not
even a whole sentence – he could be portrayed as an implacable opponent of the
use of force under all conceivable circumstances. In other words, a cheese-eating
surrender monkey.

This crime is not to be confused with the inevitable and harmless practice
of quoting only short extracts or phrases. In this sense, anything other than
a full reprint of the original speech or work is selective quotation, and every
Bad Move begins with a selective quotation. The phrase "selective
quotation" should be reserved as term of opprobrium. So when the selection
does not distort or misrepresent, it should not be called a selective quotation.

I have discussed riding roughshod over the context in which a comment is made
in Bad Moves before. Selective quotation is the most extreme form of
this type of poor argumentation, since it not only fails to take account of
the particular time, place and circumstance which often is crucial to understanding
what someone really means or intends, it fails to take account of even the other
words which immediately surround it and which form a part of one single act
of speech or writing. Ignoring the context can often be a mere error: selective
quotation is more like wilful distortion.

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