When I was teaching, I had to confront students about plagiarism far more than I would have liked. Never once did I have a “gotcha” moment. I hated it. I hated feeling like I had failed as a teacher to impart the importance of original work and/or the basics of how to (intentionally or unintentionally) avoid stealing other people’s words. I hated the look of shame in students’ eyes when I said the word “plagiarism.” I hated the chill that settled over the classroom when I lectured about it.
But I’m realizing now that the reason the whole topic was so charged was that my students and I cared.
Not once, after they were confronted with evidence of plagiarism, did I have students try to deny it. Those who’d done it intentionally felt badly and gave reasons that they’d cheated. Those who’d done it unintentionally also felt badly and promised to do whatever it took to make things right.
Not once did I have a student say it was no big deal.
It’s the denial of any sort of responsibility or moral culpability that’s so shocking in the Republicans’ response to Melania Trump’s plagiarism of Michelle Obama’s 2008 speech.
Trump’s campaign chairperson Paul Manafort chalked up the similarities to the commonness of the words and ideas expressed. (Well, there are no uncommon words in “to be or not to be,” either, but you don’t find people claiming authorship of Hamlet’s soliloquy.)
Manafort even had the gall to blame the debacle on Hillary Clinton, even though the plagiarism was first noticed by independent journalist Jarrett Hill. Per Manafort, “It’s just another example, as far as we’re concerned, that when Hillary Clinton is threatened by a female, the first thing she does is try to destroy the person.”
Ultimately, the Trump campaign is trying to pass this off as a tempest in a teapot. Here’s why it’s not, at least to me.
For me, writing is hard. Damn hard. I have to go in, in , in: I have to probe into the whirling mass of thoughts and information stored in my brain, sort through the details of calendars and menus and the periodic table and the conversion rate of gallons to liters (1 to 3.79ish). I have to push all this to the side and think myself into The Thing, the idea or emotion I want to convey. For me, this takes enormous energy and focus, so much so that I often have to type with my eyes closed until I have the words right (which is why it’s sometimes so awkward to write in cafes). Then, once I have a taste of what The Thing is, a feel for it (sensory synonyms fail me here), I have to see if there are words that can capture The Thing. Failing that, I have to verbally sidle up next to whatever The Thing is (thought or idea or feeling) and point to it, mime it, gesture at it evocatively enough that a reader or listener knows what I mean.
To somebody on the outside looking in, I’m just sitting at the computer, eyes closed and squinting, fingers on keyboard, DOING NOTHING. But what I’m doing actually takes a lot of psychological and even physical energy.
Some might say Melania Trump’s plagiarism is no big deal because both Michelle and Melania’s speeches were written by speechwriters. But by all accounts, both women worked collaboratively with their respective staffs, and if you’ve ever written by committee, you know that the capture of those words and phrases is just as hard won.
No, Melania didn’t just use “common words” that anybody might have used. She stole ideas. She stole emotions. She stole a person’s history and values and hopes.
Melania Trump stole Michelle’s words, and she needs to apologize.