Quotes out of Context: Eleanor Roosevelt and Louis C.K.

Whenever I have been hurt or have hurt someone and am trying to throw away responsibility, these two quotes come to mind:


At first these ideas seem to contradict each other. The first quote says victimhood is a choice; it’s up to us to accept or reject the inferior position of being hurt. We are in a situation and it’s our responsibility to decide how to feel about it. So if we are hurt, it’s our fault. It’s appealing to me, someone who is much more inclined to express hurt from the “superior” position of anger, and who also does not think it fair to be accused of causing hurt that I did not intend. So, I read this quote as to validate the admittedly defective ways in which I process being and causing hurt.

The second is from the view of the offender and says that if someone is hurt by your actions, you have to accept the fact without dispute and act accordingly. You can’t blame the person for deciding to be hurt (“playing the victim”), and you can’t decide that their hurt is invalid. These things don’t matter. You are responsible for the hurt you have caused. This is a healthier way to look at. Makes me feel safer to express hurt knowing it ought not to be rejected, and holds me accountable for the hurt I have caused.

Now, context.

Turns out, Roosevelt never actually said these words verbatim. She did, however, express this core idea over an incident in which the Secretary of her administration had been invited to give a speech at a University Charter Day, only to have the host of the event step down because she did not believe it appropriate to have a political figure speak.

At a conference, Roosevelt was asked whether the secretary had been “snubbed”:

 “A snub” defined the first lady, “is the effort of a person who feels superior to make someone else feel inferior. To do so, he has to find someone who can be made to feel inferior.”

The quote was thusly distilled, attributed, and published in the Readers Digest. For ease of digesting.

I’m a surprised and a little disappointed at the relatively petty origins of such a powerful idea. I’d have thought it would be a response to bullying or discrimination to encourage those who feel the power is in everyone else’s hands. Really, the host’s decision to step down from the event seems to be an upholding of her personal values, not an effort to demean. Not a big deal.

The Roosevelt quote is really about self-esteem. Inferior and superior are states of self-esteem. And it’s true, if you have high self-esteem then you will not easily be taken down a notch by those who wish you challenge you. But the quote implies that self-esteem is something you can decide. Is that so?

The quote also raises the question: is someone with high self-esteem impervious to hurt? Should they be? What does that do to a person who is unable to feel hurt? Maybe there are times in our lives where we should be hurt, so we don’t get too ahead of ourselves. Just sayin’.

Then we have the Louis C.K. quote, which seems to me more about having empathy for those you’ve hurt no matter if their hurt is justified in your eyes. Since you are the one that caused the pain, your acknowledgement of it might be the only thing that can undo it, so it is your moral duty to do so. It has nothing to do with you and everything to do with them. It’s a bit of a lofty idea, to expect everyone to cave so easily to those they have hurt when there was a reason – maybe even a valid one – to do it in the first place. But let’s say he’s talking about the hurt one inadvertently causes.

Context in light of recent events (refusing the address the allegations of the women who felt violated) gives this a little…hypocritical edge.

BUT WAIT. Upon further investigation, this quote is from season 5 episode 3 of Louis, where his character has to draw the line with a friend whose roughhousing goes too far, admit his friend’s protests:

“You’re hitting me and you’re physically hurting me and that’s where I have to draw the line. I’m telling you that it hurt and you don’t get to deny that. When a person tells you that you hurt them, you don’t get to decide that you didn’t.”

Goddamnit, it’s PHYSICAL pain he’s talking about!! Will I ever read a quote properly out of context?!

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