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The Stupidest Einstein Meme

May 8, 2019 in Economics

By Walter Olson

Walter Olson

Don’t let memes do your thinking for you, part CLXXII: In
a controversy I will not rehash here, a local journalist saw fit to
criticize his and my community for not expressing as keen a sense
of outrage about an issue (of historical school-naming) as he
thought it should. His piece went on to attribute a sentiment to
Albert Einstein: “Silence is complicity with the status

Don’t let memes do your
thinking for you.

Now, Einstein was known for having spoken out strongly against
some of the greatest moral evils of his era, including the rise of
Nazism and the Jim Crow laws then at their height in the United
States, where he lived. Even so, this sloganistic formula seemed to
me a suspiciously broad, sweeping, and meme-like assertion for him
to have made. So I went online to check and sure enough, the
attribution to Einstein appears with somewhat different wording in
various widely shared social media memes (“If I Were To
Remain Silent, I’d Be Guilty Of Complicity”).

So what did Einstein say? I could find no credible
attribution of the quoted words to him, but I did find this
seemingly genuine Einstein quote on silence and
complicity from 1954:

[I]n long intervals I have expressed an opinion on public issues
whenever they appeared to me so bad and unfortunate that silence
would have made me feel guilty of complicity.

Let’s compare this seemingly genuine quote, in its proper
context, with the meme version (“If I Were To Remain Silent,
I’d Be Guilty Of Complicity”) and the meme version as
its message was understood by the journalist using it downstream
(“Silence is complicity with the status quo.”)

The introductory phrase “In long intervals” serves
to emphasize that Einstein saved this level of public engagement
for issues that did not come up every day, but only infrequently.
Not every issue was Nazism or Jim Crow. He goes on to speak with
finesse of reaching such a personal decision when silence
“would have made me feel guilty of
complicity.” [emphasis added] Note the central role here of
personal conscience: the quoted Einstein does not prescribe
standards of guilt for others at all, let alone hector them for not
speaking out in response to exactly the same moment or event that
exceeded his threshold.

You might even argue that the meme turns on its head the spirit
of the authentic Einstein quote: Where Einstein stressed the rarity
and gravity of the situations that had prompted him to take a
public stand, the meme in its popular use (as passed on by the
journalist, for example) serves to arraign …read more

Source: OP-EDS

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