This is not your grandfather’s internet: In 2003, a witty writer named Jonathan Rauch penned an essay about introverts for The Atlantic magazine in Boston titled, “Caring for Your Introvert: The habits and needs of a little-understood group.”
Rauch, a strong liberal supporter of gay marriage and married himself, confessed to being an introvert to his husband’s extrovert, and noted, mostly tongue-in-cheek: “Introverts are also not misanthropic, though some of us do go along with [the late French existentialist Jean-Paul] Sartre as far as to say ‘Hell is other people at breakfast.’”
The key words to notice are “as far as to say.” This was Rauch’s barely-audible whisper that he was lifting a real quote and
demolishing it with a witty wise-crack. The real line in Sartre’s play ”No Exit” is “L’enfer — c’est les Autres” (Hell — is other people.).”
Nothing at all about breakfast, pardon my French.
But the Atlantic’s humorous 2003 rewrite has taken on a life of its own in 2012 on the Al Gore-invented Internet, and if you dare to Google it, you will see it all over the soggy bloggysphere and even the occasional newspaper article.
Yes, according to Craig Silverman in Canada, who investigates media gaffes as a profession, syndicated advice columnist Amy Alkon used the faux quote in 2010 when replying to a reader’s question about whether a “party girl” and am introverted male could make for a successful couple.
“Sartre once said, ‘Hell is other people at breakfast,’” agony aunt Alkon administered to her aching advice ally advisedly. “An introvert sees no reason to narrow it down to a particular time of day.”
Fast forward to mid-March 2012: The revered New York Times,
which sells a weekly 12-page English-language news supplement for students
of English around that world that is inserted in overseas newspapers in 35 countries — including in the ”China Daily” in Beijing and oui, oui, ”Le Figaro” in France — printed
Rauch’s snarky snowballing quote on the front page of its worldwide Times branding tool.
However, two weeks later, after several dozen rounds of emails back and
forth between this reporter
and Times editors in Manhattan, the Times Weekly issued a two-sentence ”correction” notice in all its overseas editions. But not one
word about this in the domestic New York Times or any of its media blogs. ”Egg on the face” apparently does not register in the Gray Lady’s Manhattan offices — only egg cream sodas in Brooklyn. So no need to confess to local American readers of the paper’s existential angst.
Overseas Times readers were treated to this little gem: “A ‘Lens’ column earlier this month about introverts and extroverts
misquoted the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. The correct quote
is ‘Hell is other people,’ not ‘Hell is other people at breakfast’.”
How did this fake quote take on a life of its own, beginning with its
Boston debut in 2003? Three factors enter in here: the speed of
the internet, the lack of fact-checkers at most media outlets and
the gullibility of ”readers” today. I say readers in quotes, because most people
reading off screens today are not really “reading.” They are, to coin a new term, “screening.”
Readers today? They’ll believe anything! And even if they
find out something they have ”screened” is incorrect,
they will often continue
to spread it around on social media and email because
it sounds like it could be a real good quote and they like it.
This is how things work in the Internet Age: “Hell is other people at breakfast” is now printed
on t-shirts you can order online.
A Boston blarneyman sets up a fake quote from Sartre back in
2003, signaling to his
readers that he was kidding — kidding! — and almost 10 years
later the fake quote is still
going strong on blogs, emails and bonafide newspaper websites.
The fake quote still appears uncorrected on the website of the ”China Daily” in Beijing, where
it has even surfaced in an online forum for Chinese students of
English, one of whom
asked forum users what the meaning of the
“Hell is other people at breakfast”
quote is, without knowing that the quote was entirely fake and faux and false and that Sartre
never said such a thing.
But because it was printed on paper in the prestigious New York Times Weekly in
China, there’s a chance 1.3 billion
Chinese are now walking around quoting the faux Sartre.
How did the Rauch joke get so much traction on the internet over the
past 9 years or so? Google the quote and
see for yourself. Hundreds of blogs and newspaper nebobs have
quoted the “breakfast” quote as a real
Sartrian sentiment. Some bloggers even ascribe the fake quote to
American humorist Kurt Vonnegut now!
Do I think this Quixotic quote will ever die, now that the Times Weekly
has issued a quiet overseas correction? No way.
The Rauchian roar will likely live on for 100 years or more, archived
in thousands of blogs and websites
as future generations ponder just what Sartre was eating for breakfast
that fateful day in Paris when he didn’t say that.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the internet, and I’m online 365/24/7. But I also love editors
and fact-checkers and people who take the time
to make sure the information they have in their files is correct
before they push the “send” button. We often
”screen” too fast off screens, rushing from distraction to distraction, and
there is a price to pay for this recklessness: fake quotes and false information.
Disinformation? Don’t get me started.