The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.
– Albert Einstein
This is one of my favourite quotations. I believe it expresses an important truth. On occasion, however, I have seen a subtly amended version…
The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. Those to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, are as good as dead: their eyes are closed.
– Albert Einstein
See the difference? Some would say that the revisionists are falling prey to “political correctness”. Trouble is; I tend to find that those who use the term ‘political correctness gone mad‘ or use a tone of dismissive derision when uttering the acronym ‘P.C.’ are actually people who have precisely zero understanding of the deeper issues involved (for instance the impact that a gender bias in language can have on a culture).
Some – indeed most – of the actual instances of “politically correct policy” are of course ludicrous. But that’s because they tend to be implemented by power-crazed petty tyrants who themselves have but a slender grasp of the issue. This does not mean there isn’t a discussion to be had regarding the ways in which language can affect culture and whether there might not be steps to be taken that would neutralise the more negative of those effects.
But there’s a few things that need to be said regarding this particular kind of revisionism. Firstly; the amended version of the Einstein quote, with the gender specificity removed, doesn’t sound right. For all intents and purposes the meaning hasn’t changed, but the sound of the words is clumsier. Stilted even. When compared to the original, it’s really not very satisfactory.
Secondly; Einstein was writing in German, and in the 1920s. Any misguided attempt to “update” his language will most likely end up like a badly-colourised version of The Big Sleep or one of those ludicrous bibles in contemporary English. It runs the risk of obscuring the meaning by focussing attention on obviously incongruous phrasing. Not what you want at all really.
Thirdly; while nobody would claim that Einstein deliberately used masculine pronouns to indicate that he was only talking about men; nonetheless any amendment is making assumptions. It sets a very dangerous precedent. The removal of the masculine pronouns doesn’t appear to change the underlying meaning of the quote… but that view is itself a product of a time and place. The impulse to strip such a quotation of its gender specificity, based on the belief that the specificity was not intended, is clearly a culturally-determined attitude.
To engage in that kind of revisionism, therefore, is to give tacit support to other; perhaps less benign; culturally-determined revisionism. Reaching back into the past and amending the words of historical figures to better reflect modern values is an extremely dangerous activity, and even the most timid and well-intentioned steps onto such a slippery slope should be resisted at all costs.