Plagiarism, noun – the unauthorized use or close imitation of the language and thoughts of another author and the representation of them as one’s own original work. [Dictionary.com]
Most decent folks don’t need to be told that a misrepresentation, such as plagiarism, is wrong. Our parents gave us some general guidelines about lying, and we have understood most related issues ever since. Unfortunately, a few people feel that “the end justifies the means“. For them, ‘borrowing’ a few professionally-written sentences from a respected source is justified by the importance of either their message or their ego. So we occasionally find examples of such deviousness in school papers, literature, or even in readers’ contributions to a significant Ozarks newspaper.
In addition to the theft of intellectual property, such misrepresentation is dishonest because it misleads us about the writer’s personal feelings and attitudes. We are presented with a sort of chimera (a blend of two species) that purports to be an individual like us, perhaps even a trusted neighbor. We are mislead to believe that we are having an honest exchange of ideas with that person. We are not – we are actually being manipulated by someone who is more interested in achieving supremacy in argument than in having a dialogue with neighbors.
There is an insidious form of misrepresentation which many of us don’t recognize. In fact, many folks do it often. Wherever people have exchanges about politics, religion, and other sectarian topics, someone will do it. The pages of blogs, newspapers’ on-line readers’ opinions, and similar forums are filled with examples. Face-to-face discussions, even between family members, may be thick with these misrepresentations.
These misrepresentations are the myriad ways of engaging in polemics: disputing for superiority instead of seeking understanding. Propagandists, now our constant companions in public life, have taught us to respond to an incisive point with counter-attacks, not dialogue. A citation of fact is met with demonizing comparisons such as ‘That’s the same thing Hitler did!‘, or ‘Big Lies’ like ‘They will confiscate everyone’s guns!‘.
Even these techniques are sometimes overkill for avoiding honest dialogue. A writer in the Globe‘s Opinion section recently published his opinion that a certain federal law should be waived to allow a better response to the Gulf oil spill. Commenters pointed out the fact that the federal law was largely inapplicable, it had not impeded any foreign assistance, and it had not affected the clean-up at all. In a genuine dialogue, the original writer would have responded with either: facts supporting the original assertion; mitigating or special circumstances negating the commenters’ points; acceptance of the gist of comments, with an alteration of the point being made; or acknowledgement that the comments are fully correct.
What actually happened was that the writer ignored the comments. He even published another opinion, simply repeating his original false assertion. What could a person be thinking when doing this? Is this how any of us would have a discussion in person? I hope not. I fear that this example is, in fact, repeated too often. Such unresponsive exchanges are certainly common in opinion pages, where arguments are countered by changing the subject, by attacks on personalities, by use of ‘straw man’ arguments, and by numerous other disingenuous (and basically dishonest) rhetorical ploys.
Such exchanges are common in political, religious, and other discussions of a sectarian nature. Our democracy – which relies upon an informed electorate – is jeopardized by the vast number of folks who can only say what they have heard from their favorite polemicist. They blind themselves to their true feelings and attitudes by adhering to fearful commentaries and believing superstitious untruths. I doubt that our pioneering citizens could afford the luxury of believing in imagined enemies instead of the realities of a harsh and unexplored land. I doubt that they could afford to listen to purported experts while they could feel life’s facts in the wind, rain, and dust on their faces.
We are no less in need of intelligent, thoughtful, and honest dialogue than those pioneers. We need to stop parroting the words of pundits and favorite news sources. We need to honestly listen to each other, respond constructively, and pursue a dialogue that actually makes our nation progress.