There is an episode of long-running popular animated sit-com The Simpsons centring on the Warholian fifteen minutes of fame acquired by main protagonist Bart Simpson that stems from his use of the phrase “I didn’t do it” whenever his actions cause a minor calamity.
His fleeting fame is based on the repeated humourous scenario of him nonchalantly denying culpability, despite it being almost certain, because there exists the smallest possibility that guilt cannot be proven beyond reasonable doubt.
Matt Groening and his colleagues wrote the episode before camera phones were commonplace and before CCTV cameras were omnipresent. If they were to write the episode today Bart would be convicted of any acts of bad behaviour immediately.
A remake of The Simpsons episode made today would choose a different phrase as its comedic hook. Instead of “I didn’t do it” Bart would exclaim “it was out of context.” For example, if Bart’s mother Marge were to scream “Bart! You burnt the house down” Bart would reply with “you are taking my actions out of context” before inviting his mother to consume an item of his clothing.
The Out Of Context retort to a demonstrably provable accusation succeeds because it negates immediately evidence of accusers’ eyes or ears. By invoking Out Of Context a perpetrator does not deny that a conspicuous act occurred or specific words were written or spoken, and does not deny her or his ownership of the act or words, but directs observers away from deduced presumption of guilt of wrongdoing.
Out Of Context causes accusers to switch to considering proof of context. As context to damn the culprit is almost always obvious, accusers’ frustration at the culprit’s mendacious obfuscation ensues. Inevitably, this leads to a lessening of the intellectual level of any exchange, to the advantage of the culprit.
Politicians, political writers, professional talking heads and reputation management lawyers are frequent users of Out Of Context when their opinions or analyses are shown to be unambiguously misguided or false. By choosing Out Of Context they can avoid supporting what they said and, simultaneously, avoid accepting what they said to be worthy of explanation or apology. It is cowardly and dishonest but effective.
Recent (October 2020) use of Out Of Context invocations included behaviour of Tory MPs when confronted about their comments following the Tories’ rejection of a Labour bill in the House of Commons that sought to ensure children are fed. Responding to criticism of the decision to vote against children, several Tory MPs published statements to clarify their stance and to refute observations of ideological cruelty. Composed hurriedly, carelessly and with conceit of social detachment, their statements contained brash ill-thought remarks that were pounced upon provoking Out Of Context claims from the MPs.
For example, Selaine Saxby, Tory MP for North Devon, in reference to the fact that many small businesses offered to help Marcus Rashford and his colleagues by providing food free of charge to be distributed to children in lieu of free school meals, said
“I am delighted our local businesses have bounced back so much after lockdown they are able to give away food for free, and very much hope they will not be seeking any further government support.”
The sarcasm and the threat of no further “support,” either as furlough payments or as central government assistance to local councils, were criticised and rightly so. Saxby countered such criticism with a second statement that began
“The portrayal of my recent comments, out of context, does not accurately convey my views.”
The (il)logical sequence of the Saxby event was she made specific comments in a self-contained statement to which retorts were written entirely within the specificity of her comments and entirely within their context in the self-contained statement, and she responded by invoking Out Of Context.
On the same issue – Tory MPs’ failure to support children in a House of Commons vote – Mansfield’s Tory MP Ben Bradley said
“At one school in Mansfield 75% of children have a social worker, 25% of parents are illiterate. One child lives in a crack den, another in a brothel.”
When a political supporter of Bradley responded to the above with “£20 cash direct to a crack den or brothel really sounds like the way forward with this one,” Bradley agreed: “That is what free school meal vouchers in the summer effectively did.”
That is, Bradley claimed free school meal vouchers were used directly to finance crack dens and brothels. What he said was clear and the context was clear and self-contained.
Labour MP Angela Rayner noted what Bradley had said: “A Conservative MP has said that free school meals are effectively a direct payment to brothels and drug dealers,” to which Bradley exclaimed, directly to Rayner, “please remove this nonsense. If the context is not clear, I will clarify, but thats 100% NOT what I’ve said.” But, Rayner’s account was of precisely what Bradley had said and the only context was the context of him saying it.
Bizarrely, Bradley’s published response to Rayner included a screenshot of his initial comments (quoted above), thus proving the indisputable accuracy of what she said: Bradley retorts.
Both examples above are typical of how Out Of Context is a tool of distraction even when it is embarrassingly easy to show how in context statements are.
Out Of Context is a contemptuous response to criticism. It is intended to momentarily confuse observers and to wobble the focus of attention but its sheer shamelessness is intentionally derisory. In particular, Tories use it to display their lack of respect for opponents and their disdain for integrity.