Of course context matters, but one reason it matters is because people abuse it. There is a legitimate complaint to be made when someone distorts or mangles an isolated quote to say something completely different from what the author intended. Here’s an infamous example: the creationists’ favorite quote from Darwin’s Origin.
To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree.
They love it because all they read is
natural selection…absurd in the highest degree, and think they’ve got a slam-dunk debunking straight from Darwin himself. This is a case where you must read the rest of the context, because what he’s doing is setting up a rhetorical case that selection seems absurd, but what follows is a whole chapter in which he explains all the gradations and intermediate steps in the evolution of the eye. And of course all it takes is the next two sentences to make it clear that he’s saying exactly the opposite of what creationists want him to say.
When it was first said that the sun stood still and the world turned round, the common sense of mankind declared the doctrine false; but the old saying of Vox populi, vox Dei [“the voice of the people = the voice of God “], as every philosopher knows, cannot be trusted in science. Reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a simple and imperfect eye to one complex and perfect can be shown to exist, each grade being useful to its possessor, as is certain the case; if further, the eye ever varies and the variations be inherited, as is likewise certainly the case; and if such variations should be useful to any animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, should not be considered as subversive of the theory.
This is the sin of partially quoting someone to twist their position. Another method of distorting a quote is the use of ellipses to artfully delete intended meanings. One of my favorite examples of this technique was found by John Lynch, in a review of an intelligent design creationist book.
Darwin actually, if unwittingly, promulgated the charter for all later social Darwinists: “Let the strongest live and the weakest die… . Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows.”
See that ellipsis? It’s magic. It contains seven deleted chapters from the Origin. If you can cobble together any set of words said at any time by anyone to make a “quote”, then pointing out the context is important in evaluating the validity of the quotation. I’ve said many times that you should never ever trust an ellipsis in a creationist document — it will conceal multitudes. You really should check out the Quote Mine Project for a long list of similar abuses.
So let me just say that defending against misquotations by pointing out that the context completely changes the meaning of the fragment is a fair argument. There are more than enough examples of people mangling meaning with partial quotes to make evaluating context important.
But more and more, I’m seeing “that was taken out of context!” as a get-out-of-jail-free card for statements that were not taken out of context, but were actually representative of the views of the person. For instance, Donald Trump said there should be “some form of punishment” for women who get abortions. That he said it is a fact; that Trump is not generally supportive of women’s rights is also a fact, so it was representative of his views. That he later, after getting quite a bit of heat, reversed himself, does not mean it was taken out of context. Actually, given general Republican policies on reproductive rights, it fits right in with the context.
Another master of the “out of context” escape clause is Sam Harris. This is a guy who can write an essay called “In Defense of Torture”, and then tries to argue that he’s not defending torture, because you have to include the context that he thinks it’s horrible and ought to remain illegal…although we should still do it when necessary. Ironically, it’s when we do take his writings in the full context of his arguments for torture, racial profiling, bombing, killing people for what they believe, etc., that his fans are most likely to scream that we are “taking Sam out of context!”
Harris has something in common with fundamentalist religions, as well. Islamists, for instance, are fond of claiming that quoting the Koran is “out of context”; they’ve even gone so far as to claim that even quoting a translation from the original Arabic means you’ve removed all the relevant context and are distorting the meaning. But they are using “context” as a waffling weasel word to obscure the clear meaning and intent of the words of their holy book. There are clear and plain spoken passages that express sentiments that are not compatible with the modern mind, but are accurate representations of their time, and that there are other scattered bits that that soften or even contradict some of those passages is not “context” that excuses you from ignoring the bits you don’t like. For example, this:
Does the Koran say that men have the right to physically beat their wives or not? I say yes and quote the following verses to prove my point:
Sura IV.34 : “As for those [women] from whom you fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart, and scourge [or beat] them.”
This translation comes from a Muslim. Have I somehow distorted the meaning of these lines? Let us have a wider textual context:
Sura IV.34 : “Men have authority over women because God has made the one superior to the other, and because they spend their wealth to maintain them. Good women are obedient. As for those from whom you fear disobedience, admonish them and send them to beds apart and beat them. Then if they obey you, take no further action against them. God is high, supreme.”
If anything, the wider textual context makes things worse for those apologists of Islam who wish to minimize the mysogyny of the Koran. The oppression of women has divine sanction; women must obey God and their men, who have divine authorisation to scourge them. One Muslim translator, Yusuf Ali, clearly disturbed by this verse adds the word “lightly” in brackets after “beat” even though there is no “lightly” in the original Arabic. An objective reading of the entire Koran (that is the total context) makes grim reading as far as the position of women is concerned.
If you were actually to take context into account, rather than using it to bury or excuse unpleasant reality, you ought to face reality: Islam was founded in a patriarchal and aggressively expansionist culture that took concepts like honor and purity very, very seriously, and used religion and divine authority as a tool to control people’s lives. Context makes it reasonable to interpret the Koran as authorizing men to abuse women. If you want to rationalize it, don’t say these words are taken out of context, but instead point out that cultures are complex, diverse, and changing, and that the views of many modern Muslims are more sophisticated and interesting than that. Unfortunately, that creates new conflicts, because it requires admitting that the words of the holy book are not the perfect and unchanging principles of a flawless holy being.
And let’s not just pick on Islam. Christianity is just as bad. There is no “context” to excuse Leviticus, for instance; it literally begins by claiming that “The Lord called to Moses and spoke to him”, handing down a long list of do’s and don’ts. It’s specific. It’s clear. It’s detailed. It is not metaphorical. It is not poetry. The first part is all about how to properly splash blood from animal sacrifices around in order to make this primitive god happy. The only context in which it should be understood is that this is a document from an ancient culture with practices we now consider brutal, ugly, and pointless — you don’t get to claim that the New Testament changes the context of Leviticus. It is what it is, and you don’t get to radically reinterpret Leviticus on the basis of the Gospels, as if sticking a Jesus torture and execution story on a chapter about splashing altars with blood makes it all alright.
I think if we properly considered context, those two examples simply make it clear that the Bible is bloody horrible, rather than somehow magically making it a good guide for modern life.