Tuesday, July 19, 2016

On the Politics of Stealing Stories #SOL16

Thank you, Two Writing Teachers, for sponsoring the Tuesday
Slice of LifeStory Challenge. We need you and the stories. 
I walked into my first college class in late August 1977. My first foray into higher education came at 7:30 a.m. every Tuesday and Thursday in Professor Tom Padgett's Honors Composition class, a six-credit hour grueling foray for which I was woefully unprepared. 

Before writing our first paper, Dr. Padgett handed us a warning: "Plagiarism through Ignorance." I can still see the words on the mimeographed copy, can still feel the moist paper, can still smell the chemicals characteristic of that now archaic era of copying handouts. I imagine Dr. Padgett cranking the old copier as he tried to avoid blue ink stains on his finger and clothing. 

Reading those words "Plagiarism through Ignorance" made me faint and a little nauseous. From that moment I've feared being found guilty of plagiarism. I've worried that I would unwittingly plagiarize. 

My fear polarized me during Dr. Padgett's class and two sections of American Literature I took with him. Writing this I wonder how my fear of plagiarism impacted my writing as an undergrad. Did it stifle my creativity? Did it make me hyper-concerned for citing sources? 

I'll never know the answer to these questions, of course. Still, I do value this early lesson about plagiarism, and I still have that handout tucked away among papers from long ago. 

I write this, of course, in the wake of Melania Trump's RNC keynote speech and the obvious plagiarism inherent in its text. 

I first heard that Mrs. Trump had plagiarized part of Michelle Obama's 2008 DNC speech last night and have read commentary, watched discussions, and laughed at memes, including one depicting Milli Vanelli as Melania's speech writer. One of my friends left an image from Turnitin.com on his FB page and allowed the picture to speak unencumbered by words. It was enough. 

In 2006 Sherman Alexie penned an op-ed for Time magazine in which he articulates why we should all care about incidents of plagiarism. Alexie's remarks in "When the Story Stolen is Your Own" follow his vindication from having been victimized by a plagiarist. Alexie reminds us that stealing words matters as it constitutes stealing someone else's story: 

His lies matter because he has cynically co-opted as a literary style the very real suffering endured by very real Indians because of very real injustices caused by very real American aggression that destroyed very real tribes.

Melania Trump in her RNC speech essentially did to Michelle Obama what Nasdijj did to Alexie. By taking Michelle Obama's story about parental lessons and articulating it as her own, Melania diminished the stories of immigrants and African Americans. Importantly, she also silenced her own voice in the process. Her ethical lapse--intentional or otherwise--draws into question all other claims about herself as a parent and as an immigrant. 

My hope is that Melania Trump and her speech writers offer a sincere apology, that Melania says she and Michelle Obama have similar stories and values. These, after all, embody American values, at least the ones we espouse. I can forgive and even excuse Melania Trump who may very well have learned a different standard for what constitutes plagiarism in her culture because I know the standard differs among countries. 

By cribbing, co-opting, claiming a story not her own, Melania Trump, perhaps through ignorance, diminishes the "very real injustices" often inherent in the immigrant experience. We cannot afford to countenance this kind of ignorance. 


  1. Thank you for your thoughtful post on this issue. Too often incidents like this devolve into 2-dimensional, bad guy-good guys events. I too hope that Melania Trump and her staff will apologize to Michelle Obama and the public. That would be the best outcome.

  2. I had a student totally plagiarize a friend's work this year. I'd never had this happen before and I was shocked. It is one thing to plagiarize Wikipedia, but to steal from a friend. We treated this very seriously, but told her she was very lucky this happened in 6th grade. I hope the student pays attention to the Melania Trump situation and understands what we meant.

    1. I've actually had students purchase essays from paper mills and still not understand that this is plagiarism. And I have a whole unit dealing w/ this issue.

  3. Plagiarism is selfish and lazy. That being said, I am not sure Melania did it knowingly. I think her writers DID do it knowingly. Her speech was also "rick-rolled" as it had lyrics from Rick Astley's song, "Never Gonna Give You Up." The whole thing is a circus.

    1. I didn't mention the Rick roll to avoid muddying my point.

      One theory floated is that Melania found Michelle Obama's speech and used part of it in a draft that she passed on to a speech writer who failed to check it.

  4. Plagiarism is selfish and lazy. That being said, I am not sure Melania did it knowingly. I think her writers DID do it knowingly. Her speech was also "rick-rolled" as it had lyrics from Rick Astley's song, "Never Gonna Give You Up." The whole thing is a circus.

  5. I was thinking about this, too. Not only following the reports and comparisons of Melania and Michelle's speeches, but also because of a reading experience. I spent the whole morning yesterday reading a book (ah, summer break!) by an author I like and admire. But I was disturbed when the story had major plot developments that were so similar to one of my all-time favorite books. It had me thinking about where the line is. In this case, it felt like plagiarism, but I was left wondering if this author had maybe read my favorite book in elementary or middle school, it had made an impression though he didn't specifically remember the book and author, and it was unconscious when he used those ideas.

    1. Now I'm curious about the book you read. That said, postmodern writers famously retell stories, and formulas for plots often ring familiar from book to book.