|Photo courtesy of J. Scott Applewhite, AP|
“Derived from the Latin word plagiarius (‘kidnapper’), to plagiarize means ‘to commit literary theft’ and to ‘present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source’” (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary [11th ed.; 2003; print]). “Plagiarism involves two kinds of wrongs. Using another person’s ideas, information, or expressions without acknowledging that person’s work constitutes intellectual theft. Passing off another person’s ideas, information, or expressions as your own to get a better grade or gain some other advantage constitutes fraud. Plagiarism is also a moral and ethical offense” (MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, [Seventh Edition]).
So Melania Trump is a kidnapper.
As America wakes up to Day 2 of the big show in Cleveland, everyone will be talking about Melania cribbing her speech from Michelle Obama at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. In the opening paragraph above, I did what writers do: I attributed material from another source that I have used in this essay. It’s not rocket science and it is important.
I work with writing students all the time, and very few of them plagiarize on purpose. The majority of the time, the student-writer simply forgets to use quotation marks for directly quoted material. They also forget to put in the source. Or, they do not attribute information they have summarized or paraphrased from a source. I have only a few occasions in 28 years in the classroom where the student bought the paper complete or copied out a full paper written by someone else. This accidental plagiarism is a moral error, especially to people who work with words daily, but is also to be expected with students who are learning the value of scholarship and research.
But make no mistake: plagiarism is theft. One who plagiarizes steals ideas and yes, words, from another. It is fraudulent and duplicitous behavior, and even if it is unintended, it colors everything the comes after from that guilty writer.
Let’s examine the definition quoted above. “Plagiarism involves two kinds of wrongs. Using another person’s ideas, information, or expressions without acknowledging that person’s work constitutes intellectual theft.” This is why we have warnings about copying DVDs of films. It is an offense punishable by fines and jail time. It is called “intellectual property theft,” and it is rampant in this digital frontier. We are talking here about ideas, not just words. In the wee hours of Tuesday morning, the Trump camp tried to say that the sentiments were Melania’s and the words she used were just common expressions that many people say to their children. The sentences, phrases and chunks of material were almost identical. The content of the speech, the ideas, may have been similar to those expressed by many parents to their children, but she should have struggled harder to make those expressions her own. Many of the talking heads on the cable news networks remarked that it was strange the speech did not contain any stories or personal accounts of Donald Trump at home. The speech read generic, which may have been due to her lack of her own ideas.
The MLA guide goes on to say that “passing off another person’s ideas, information, or expressions as your own to get a better grade or gain some other advantage constitutes fraud.” It is a funny side note that fraud has played a role in the Trump University scandal. But here, it would appear Mrs. Trump is trying to concoct a picture of the Trump philosophy about following one’s dreams and having hope, which are common sentiments, but this is where the words most closely align between Mrs. Trump’s speech and Michelle Obama’s words in 2008.
I encounter students all the time who see no harm done with borrowing someone else’s words and sentiments. Many times, I’ll see photos and quotes taken from websites without attribution, and when I attempt to discuss this with the students, they believe no real crime has been committed. Granted, I have never heard of anyone in modern times going to prison for plagiarism, but it strikes at the heart of a person’s character. For journalists, essayists, indeed, all writers, plagiarism is serious business and careers are ruined because of unattributed material. Students will most likely suffer a failing grade on the paper when they plagiarize. They might even fail the course, or if the school has a strict honor code, they may have to find a new school.
What Melania Trump did tonight is deliver a fraudulent version of her life with Donald Trump and the abiding precepts with which she lives her life. She will not receive an F from any teacher, although the press is having a field day. She will not fail a class and never graduate. However, if she knowingly delivered this speech kidnapped from another place and time and does not admit her mistake, everything that comes out of her mouth from this point forward will be suspect. She is a plagiarist and cannot be trusted. Worse, she has painted the other members of the family, her husband, and her staff with the broad brush of dishonesty, fraud and questionable ethics. For the rest of their time in the public eye, every one of their words will be scrutinized. Trump and his retinue have a credibility problem. Of course, as a candidate, the press has caught him numerous times in exaggerations and even outright lies. So maybe Melania’s gaff tonight was just one more in a series of frauds perpetrated on the American political scene by the man with the particular hair.