OUT OF CONTEXT

Ivanka Trump’s foray into Nietzsche, and other gratuitous misuses of philosophy

Fyre Festival didn’t just use Instagram celebrities to promote its failed event.

After the Ja Rule-backed luxury Bahamas music festival turned out to be little more than a tent city with bad cafeteria food, the pitch deck to investors was gleefully leaked. Among the talk of social media “influencers” and “social impressions,” the Fyre organizers dropped in a quote from 13th century poet and philosopher Rumi: “Seek those who light your flames.”

And Fyre’s organizers aren’t the only ones who’ve used pretty philosophy quotes to seem deep. Ivanka Trump’s recently published book, “Women Who Work,” includes quotes from Nietzsche, Aristotle, and Socrates, all of which become platitudes in her deft hands. Business leaders are also prone to this tendency; Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella is particularly fond of dressing up his memos with florid philosophical quotes. And if you’ve gone on a date with someone pretentious recently, there’s a decent chance they’ve trotted out a memorized line with an air of great (unearned) profundity.

Though there are some philosophical phrases that can be read in isolation (aphorisms are pithy ideas surmised in just one sentence), taking philosophers’ words out of context all too often misconstrues, or at least vastly simplifies, their meaning.

A thorough reading of Rumi, for example, suggests that he would not endorse the intended hedonism and social media networking of Fyre Festival. Fatemeh Keshavarz, chair of Persian studies at University of Maryland, points out that Rumi saw accruing material wealth as, “covering yourself in layers and layers of clothing that prevent you from feeling the warmth of the sun which is meant to reach everyone regardless of who they are.” The quote cited by Fyre Festival was written to convey the idea that every human has a divine core, she explains. Human distractions can cause us to neglect this inner God, but the company of others who’ve realized their divine potential can help ignite one’s own divinity.

Rumi wrote with great depth and complexity, using a variety of literary forms, and in an entirely different culture from today. “You cannot quote him out of context and without attention to these important details,” adds Keshavarz.

Omid Safi, director of Duke Islamic Studies Center, agrees that it’s important to read Rumi within the context of his spiritual Islamic tradition. The Sufi [Muslim mystic] teachings of Rumi’s time emphasized the “need to curb one’s selfish tendencies and desires,” he writes in an email. “These themes of discipline, ritual, community, and self-denial are usually minimized or eliminated in business appropriations of Rumi. As for the quotes that are usually attributed to Rumi on social memes and Facebook, the overwhelming majority of these have no relationship to anything that the earthy historical Rumi ever said.”

When businesses or individuals use a philosophical quote without truly considering the context or broader meaning, they’re often piggybacking on the discipline’s cachet. A similar thinking seems to be behind the cosmetics brand Philosophy.

“It’s amazing that they sell products with the connotations of philosophy because for me, the caricature is that philosophy is blokes with beards, full of hot air, sitting in armchairs,” says Nigel Warburton, host of the popular podcast Philosophy Bites. “I don’t see how that sells cosmetics.”

Ian Olasov, philosophy graduate student at CUNY and organizer of Brooklyn Public Philosophers—who notes that philosophers who wear makeup are often given the brand as a Christmas present—says certain philosophers seem to have more hipster cred than others. “Nietzsche’s cool. Rumi’s cool. [Willard Van Orman] Quine isn’t cool,” says Olasov. “People wouldn’t take a quote from [Karl Popper’s] ‘The Logic of Scientific Discovery’ and put that on their make up.”

For Warburton, there’s nothing wrong with taking a quote from a philosopher and using it as a pretty metaphor. After all, he says, “Nobody in their right minds is going to think they understand philosophy through these one liners.” At least such branding promotes philosophy, and Warburton believes that creating slogans from philosophers’ works doesn’t damage the subject itself. “I wouldn’t want to be prescriptive about the uses of other people’s words,” he says. “A single line of poetry can have a powerful effect on people who don’t understand the original context in which it was written.”

Personally, I find it disturbing and frustrating to see the writings of thinkers who were deeply against materialism used by corporations to sell high-end products, such as Fyre Festival. It’s similarly annoying when individuals namedrop philosophers to artificially enhance their own opinions. “I think it’s trying to take some kind of crass transaction or event and make it seem more elevated,” agrees Olasov. And there are several potentially troubling consequences.

Firstly, it gives a misleading impression of philosophy. Olasov says he knows of one philosopher who, when they mentioned their job at a cocktail party, was asked, “What are some of your sayings?”

“On the one hand, yes that’s funny if you know what philosophy really is,” says Olasov. “On the other hand it’s like, ‘Oof man, we’re really not doing a good job in the PR department.’” Philosophers are respected thinkers not for their catchy quotes, but for the arguments and systems of reasoned thinking that lead up to their insightful conclusions. Taking a clutch of quotes from Nietzsche, Stoics, and Utilitarians and using them to support an argument might sound nice, but “there’s no real regard to how totally inconsistent those three ways of thinking are,” Olasov adds.

Philosophers certainly worry about their own ideas being misconstrued, and so some are deterred from engaging in public philosophy discussions. But refusing to have real philosophical discussions in public allows for the meanings and ideas in philosophy to be dangerously distorted.

Rachel McKinney, philosophy fellow at Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, has written on how several alt-right figures and ideologies have connections to philosophy. “Philosophy has become a vehicle for the alt-right,” she writes on Medium, where she singles out a white supremacy group that seems to advertise itself as a “philosophical fight club.” “The fascists are recruiting in our name, using the tools of our trade, and some academics seem more than happy to play along,” McKinney says. It’s not as though it hasn’t happened before; famously, Nietzsche was the darling philosopher of the Nazis.

Alt-right philosophy is considerably more troubling than flashy businessmen using the odd quote to spruce up their mission. But both have the potential to twist public perceptions, and underline the need for meaningful philosophical discussions, rather than superficial quotes.

There’s one undeniable positive to using philosophical one-liners: It shows that there’s widespread interest in these thinkers. Olasov argues that there’s nothing wrong with Fyre Festival or Ivanka Trump or anyone choosing to incorporate philosophical ideas into their work, it’s just that this engagement should be sincere rather than window dressing. “[Philosophy] can take place in commercial contexts and that’s totally fine,” he says. “Just because it’s in public or a commercial context, doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing.”

But an arbitrary philosophical quote does not truly make a philosophical idea, or product, or person. It’s important for philosophically minded people to challenge those who thoughtlessly use quotes to sell themselves or products. And academic philosophers have a duty to take part in these public discussions.

“When we philosophers don’t do a good job of going out and fulfilling the need people have for philosophical conversations, then other forces will come in and do that job for us,” says Olasov. “Fyre Festival or Ivanka Trump or men’s rights activists will do it instead, and they won’t do it well.”

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