Plagiarism, Integrity, & Dialogue

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.


4 Responses to “Plagiarism, Integrity, & Dialogue”

  1. 1 Jim
    July 23, 2010 at 1:52 pm

    Folks, these are two of the finest people to have a conversation with: Jim one and Carroll. Compare their contributions here to some of the comments under the Joplin Globe’s parallel publication [ http://www.joplinglobe.com/editorial/x871674324/Jim-Stone-guest-columnist-Punditry-bane-to-honest-dialogue ]. Some folks really freaked out about a mostly-generic commentary on dialogue.

    That is, of course, a result of my actions. I mentioned a couple of ‘hot-button’ topics. There are folks who, when they see certain words (how about that ‘G-word’, anyway?), become blinded to other content. Their responses did have the consequence of illustrating my point. – Jim too

  2. July 23, 2010 at 12:16 pm

    To both,

    I agree, you are describing human nature. It is a considerable effort to always re-evaluate one’s opinions and, contrary-wise, much easier to take one of two sides, say Republican or Democrat, rather than examine issues on their merits.

    It occurs to me that most of the nation did that when the 18th Amendment was passed and ratified. People wanted to appear Dry, but to act Wet. Culturally schizoid.


  3. 3 Carroll Boswell
    July 22, 2010 at 10:32 am

    I absolutely agree. And prior to the needs you pointed out, a condition for wanting those needs met is the need to actually desire to know the truth. The impression such exchanges give is that the commenter doesn’t particular care what the truth is but instead just wants to advance his or her own agenda. There just seems to be little real desire for knowing the truth even if it means we may have to alter our own opinions. People who do want to know the truth rather than merely advancing their own viewpoint would know instinctively that they needed to honestly listen to others, that they needed to respond constructively and thoughtfully, that they needed to pursue a dialogue.

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All original material Copyright James R. Stone 2010, except where specifically noted. Some images licensed under Creative Commons, or GNU Free Documentation License, or unlicensed and public domain.

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