Context and Social Media

Inspirational little quotes pop up all the time on social media platforms. Here’s one that that was making the rounds on Twitter recently:

“People should only profit to the extent they make other peoples lives better.” — Charles Koch

My first thoughts were:

  • How do you measure “better?”
  • Who would do the measuring?
  • What constitutes “better?” If doctors are paid a healthy sum for healing the body, shouldn’t clerics be paid even more for healing the soul? Priests could then have a sliding scale of fees for confessions, depending on how good they were, and congregants would pay top dollar for a really rousing sermon.
  • If this idea were to be implemented, then some central authority, the government, presumably, would have to define and measure “better,” and reward people accordingly. It’s the recipe for a state-controlled economy. This may or may not be what people had in mind when they were tweeting Mr. Koch’s sound bite.

But as I continued to ponder the quote, I became more and more confused. I knew that Charles Koch is associated with conservative politics, and advocating statism seemed like an odd position for him to take. On the other hand, being a multibillionaire bigwig, perhaps this quote expresses an elitism that would come quite naturally to him.

Since I didn’t really understand, I decided to look up the context of the quote. It was taken from an interview he did with the Washington Post in 2014. When I read the quote in context, it became clear my superficial analysis was completely off track. Here is more context around the quote (emphasis added).

Koch: … “I think one of the biggest problems we have in the country is this rampant cronyism where all these large companies are into smash and grab, short-term profits, (saying) how do I get a regulation, we don’t want to export natural gas because of my raw materials … well, you say you believe in free markets, but by your actions you obviously don’t. You believe in cronyism. And that’s true even at the local level. I mean, how does somebody get started if you have to pay $100,000 or $300,000 to get a medallion to drive a taxi cab? You have to go to school for two years to be a hairdresser. You name it, in every industry we have this. The successful companies try to keep the new entrants down. Now that’s great for a company like ours. We make more money that way because we have less competition and less innovation. But for the country as a whole, it’s horrible. And for disadvantaged people trying to get started, it’s unconscionable in my view. I think it’s in our long-term interest, in every American’s long-term interest, to fight against this cronyism. As you all have heard me say, the role of business is to create products that make peoples’ lives better while using less resources to do it and making more resources available to satisfy other needs. When a company is not being guided by the products they make and what the customers need, but by how they can manipulate the system — get regulations on their competitors, or mandates on using their products, or eliminating foreign competition — it just lowers the overall standard of living and hurts the disadvantaged the most. … And it’s about making money honorably. People should only profit to the extent they make other peoples lives better. You should profit because you created a better restaurant and people enjoyed going to it. You didn’t force them to go, you don’t have a mandate that you have to go to my restaurant on Tuesdays and Wednesdays or you go to prison… .”

Taken in context, Mr. Koch’s quote is really about fighting cronyism, fat cat capitalism and an over-regulated economy — pretty much the opposite point of the one I assumed (guessed) he was making when I first saw the naked tweet.

There Is No Knowledge in Sound Bites

People love sharing these inspirational quotes on social media. But are they teaching us the intended lesson? I imagine most people who read this particular quote didn’t know much about Mr. Koch and didn’t dig into the source material for a fuller picture of his meaning. So readers drew whatever conclusions they wanted. Then again maybe I’m selling people short. Maybe the short quote was so precise and elegant it conveyed the details conveyed in the longer quote just above.

The point here is, it is the context, not the fancy quote, that builds knowledge. Context — understanding the fully fleshed out idea, understanding the perspective of the author, understanding the historical context of the commentary —  enables us to learn the intended lesson. We may end up agreeing or disagreeing with the point of the lesson, but we will know what we are agreeing or disagreeing with.

Sound bites appeal to our desire for instant gratification. Everyone is on the hunt for the life-altering aphorism and the mind-bending metaphor. There may be life-altering and mind-bending implications in some such sound bites, but the new life and new mind we seek come not from reading a thousand sound bites, but instead from studying one until we understand it inside and out.

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