EVERY FOUR YEARS Americans go through what can only be described as a moderate case of national silliness. For those who prefer to use technical words to describe these things, the collective silliness is called election season.
This election season has been particularly silly.
And not just because of Donald Trump.
As American politics usually goes, by the time the Democrats and Republicans head to their Party (respective) national conventions, the silliness gives way to the serious business of each Party choosing its presidential candidate.
As I said, this is how it usually goes.
This year, Republican National Convention has guaranteed that the silliness will last until election day in November.
How so, you say?
A single word:
Plagiarism, as defined by Google, is:
The practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own.
Republican Party candidate Donald Trump’s wife (and potential First Lady) Melania was accused of plagiarizing a speech given by current First Lady, Michelle Obama, at the Democratic National Convention in 2008.
Although all of this hullabaloo over Melania Trump’s alleged plagiarism seems like it’s just a bunch of journalists and hypocrites (wait, isn’t that the same thing?) causing drama over political silliness, plagiarism isn’t such a silly thing. In some circles, using another person’s words or work without proper citation is serious business. There’s an expectation, especially in academia, that one’s writing be original. Every college student knows you can get kicked out of school for plagiarizing someone else’s work and passing it off as your own. In professions such as journalism, plagiarism can cost you your job.
When I was in college, a couple of my professors were so cuckoo for plagiarism that one professor even required students to affirm that our term papers were our own original work.
On the cover sheet of every term paper we had to write this:
I understand the rules governing plagiarism and I certify that the work contained in this paper is my own, I have given appropriate citations for quotations and ideas that I have taken from other authors.
In the eyes of academics and many employers, passing off another’s work as one’s own is no different from theft.
They think that this
Is the same as doing this
But for every armchair political pundit, professional journalist, and university professor who believes that a plagiarist is a thief of the lowest order, there is someone looking at all the Melania Trump plagiarism hubbub asking, what’s the big deal? Political speeches are saturated with copious amounts paraphrasing and outright plagiarism.
The correct question isn’t Did Melania Trump plagiarize Michelle Obama’s speech? but Name a politician who hasn’t been accused of or is actually guilty of plagiarism.
This politician was accused of plagiarism.
So was he.
And so was this guy.
And this president.
These guys have been accused of plagiarism.
More than once.
At least seven times, to be exact.
And THIS is the problem with plagiarism. What exactly is plagiarism?
Yeah, there’s the textbook definition, but, you see, people are often inspired by, or borrow from, or even imitate the work of other writers and artists.
And that’s exactly it. Where do we draw the line between inspiration and stealing? Where does mere similarity end and plagiarism begin?
A clear line might have helped Robin Thicke.
FYI: In 2013, the family of the late R&B singer Marvin Gaye sued contemporary R&B vocalist Robin Thicke for plagiarizing Gaye’s 1977 song “Got To Give It Up”. The Gaye family argued (successfully) that Thicke’s 2013 hit song “Blurred Lines” copied chords from “Got To Give It Up” and Thicke and fellow “Blurred Lines” songwriter, Pharrell Williams, were ordered to pay $7.4 million to the Gaye family.
Let’s be honest, these days, few ideas are completely original. So how original can one be when writing on a subject that has been written about before?
Despite our best efforts, sometimes two (or more) people will write exactly the same thing.
How many different ways can you originally say “Make America Great Again”?
Even philosophers are not immune.
Modern philosophy is all based on someone else’s ideas.
I’ve written plenty of papers under the impression that I’d written some deeply brilliant philosophical sigight only to find that someone else had already written it.
The so-called Elvis of philosophy, Slavoj Zizek, was accused of plagiarism.
From the White Nationalist Journal The American Renaissance, no less.
Google search “philosophers on plagiarism” and you’ll find Did Nietzsche plagiarize Max Stirner?
For the record, Nietzsche said he was influenced by Schopenhauer.
So, we’re tempted to say that plagiarism is no big deal, right?
Well, it kinda is and it kinda isn’t.
This is kinda why plagiarism is a big deal:
Plagiarism is defined as The practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own. In short, if you’re a plagiarist, you’re basically stealing someone else’s stuff.
Stealing stuff is usually considered morally wrong.
Now, if you were a philosopher like Aristotle, this would be a serious moral transgression.
According to Aristotle’s virtue ethics, the things we do are the result of what kind of character we have. If a person does good things it’s likely that that is a good (i.e. morally virtuous) person. If you do something bad, like stealing, according to Aristotle’s ethics, you’re probably an absolute POS.*
In Aristotle’s treatise on morality, Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says:
It is well said, then, that it is by doing just acts that the just man is produced, and by doing temperate acts the temperate man; without doing these no one would have even a prospect of becoming good.
Plagiarizing someone else’s material may seem like it’s no big deal – or it could be an indicator of one’s bad character.
And nobody wants to be around bad people.
People who do bad things may seem like fun people, but in the end they’re not so fun to be with.
Especially when they steal your stuff.
It’s worth mentioning that plagiarism isn’t merely stealing. Plagiarism is the act of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own. Passing off someone else’s work as your own is deceptive – and deception is a form of lying. So, if you’re doing the plagiarism thing, you’re not only a thief, you’re also a liar.
But wait a minute. If Melania Trump did indeed plagiarize her Republican National Convention speech, are we wiling to go so far to call her a person of bad character? Her plagiarism may not be an act of outright theft. Trump’s speechwriter claims that Melania Trump was “inspired” by Michelle Obama – and that may explain the close similarity between Obama’s 2008 speech and Trump’s Republican National Convention speech. Melania Trump’s intention wasn’t to rip off Michelle Obama, but to express sentiments that she also shared with the First Lady.
So… when all is said and done is plagiarism a bad thing? Is plagiarism even a thing? I don’t know. Maybe.
It’s possible that we aren’t looking at the whole picture when it comes to plagiarism Perhaps we should consider what role influence, inspiration, homage, and when great minds think alike plays in creating a piece of work before we heap our righteous moral condemnation upon so-called plagiarists.
You know I’m saying this only because the chance that I’ll inevitably plagiarize someone is about 80 percent.
* POS: piece of shit.