Melania Trump’s apparent plagiarism of the speech given by Michelle Obama at the 2008 Democratic Convention reminds us of the importance we continue to ascribe to originality and to authenticity in public life.
At the Republican Convention, Melania Trump said:
“From a young age, my parents impressed on me the values that you work hard for what you want in life, that your word is your bond and you do what you say and keep your promise. That you treat people with respect. They taught and showed me values and morals in their daily life.
“That is a lesson that I continue to pass along to our son, and we need to pass those lessons on to the many generations to follow, because we want our children in this nation to know that the only limit to your achievements is the strength of your dreams and your willingness to work for them.”
Eight years earlier, the words of Michelle Obama were:
“Barack and I were raised with so many of the same values, that you work hard for what you want in life, that your word is your bond and you do what you say you’re going to do; that you treat people with dignity and respect, even if you don’t know them, and even if you don’t agree with them.
“And Barack and I set out to build lives guided by these values, and pass them on to the next generation. Because we want our children – and all children in this nation – to know that the only limit to the height of your achievements is the reach of your dreams and your willingness to work for them.”
The unascribed usage of Michelle Obama’s words was initially denied, although Sam Clovis, a Trump campaign adviser who has assisted in the drafting of some of his speeches, acknowledged in an interview on MSNBC that Melania Trump used words that were not her own:
I’m sure what happened is the person who was helping write this plucked something in there and probably an unfortunate oversight — and certainly Melania didn’t have anything to do with it.
Today, however, a Trump Organization staffer took responsibility for the controversy caused by the speech. Her explanation was that Melania Trump had read passages from Michelle Obama’s speech over the phone to her as examples, and some of the phrasing later ended up in a draft that became Melania’s speech.
Plagiarism is an emotive and divisive topic. The age of intertextuality and “the information age” mean that information is ubiquitously available for processing, repetition, adjusting and reframing by all.
The issue is what this means for unacknowledged secondary use of what others have thought, said or recorded – whether plagiarism still has meaning as a contemporary concept.
A thoughtful perspective contended by literary journalist Stuart Kelly in 2011 is that:
“In the virtual world, the most valuable currency is reality. That would explain why the two things that aggravate the blogosphere most in literary terms are plagiarism and impersonation.”
Plagiarism around the world
The man who is now US Vice-President Joe Biden, in a law assignment at the Syracuse University College of Law, plagiarised five pages from a 15-page article in the 1965 Fordham University Law Review.
He explained himself by saying: “My intent was not to deceive anyone. For if it were, I would not have been so blatant.”
Put another way, it was an accident – he didn’t mean to do anything wrong. This rationalisation can be termed the “Biden defence”.
In 2013, the Chief Rabbi of France, Gilles Bernheim, resigned his position after revelations of his plagiarism. At first, though, he had claimed that the author he plagiarised instead had plagiarised him. Later resiling from this, he then blamed a researcher for what had happened.
Bernheim refused to resign on the basis that to do so would amount to an act of vanity and desertion of office. However, he changed his mind after evidence emerged also about the illegitimacy of his claimed doctoral qualifications, which it turned out he had not completed at the Sorbonne.
In Australia, too, there have been high-profile casualties of the exposure of plagiarism.
A prominent example was the vice-chancellor of Monash University, David Robinson, who engaged in wholesale copying of others’ work in the late 1970s and 1980s and had to resign his position in 2002.
A Monash University philosophy professor reportedly said: “Having a plagiarist as head of a university is like having an embezzler running an accounting firm.”
In more recent times, a series of European politicians have lost their positions after revelations that they engaged in plagiarism in obtaining their postgraduate degrees.
The first in the sequence was Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, the German defence minister, who was persuaded to resign in 2011 after it became apparent that his 2006 thesis from the University of Bayreuth was significantly plagiarised.
He had become known as “the cut and paste minister” and thereby an electoral liability.
Then Silvana Koch-Mehrin, the deputy speaker of the European Parliament, was prevailed upon to resign in 2013 after exposure of plagiarism in her doctoral thesis.
She challenged the deprivation of her doctorate by Heidelberg University in 2013 but failed.
In 2012, the president of Hungary, Pal Schmidt, had his doctorate from Semmelweis University withdrawn on the basis of his plagiarism of a German academic and a Bulgarian sports official.
Over the course of the scandal that ensued he resigned the presidency.
The prime minister of Romania, Victor Ponta, was exposed in 2012 as having plagiarised significant parts of his doctoral thesis on the International Criminal Court.
A 13-member ethics commission set up by the University of Bucharest found he had plagiarised elements on 115 pages of the 297 pages of his thesis.
His conduct became the subject of accusation and counter-accusation in the political process.
By 2014, Ponta had abandoned his doctorate and lost office in Romania’s elections.
Consequences to political careers
It is clear then that exposure of unattributed copying of material in the academic domain has had devastating consequences for a number of European politicians.
It has also generated much reflection on the value of intellectual authenticity and integrity.
In many theatres of life, such as registration as a medical practitioner or a psychologist and admission as a lawyer, plagiarism is regarded as indicative of a person not being fit and proper for a role as a professional, at least for a time.
What then is it about plagiarism that continues to offend community sensibilities?
Essentially, it is that it is a theft of ideas or thoughts without fair attribution of the creator’s work. It is a breach of trust.
We invest belief and confidence that what we hear or read is the actual product of the person and is not the result of intellectual dishonesty.
When it turns out to be otherwise, justifiably, we feel cheated and fooled – what seemed real and reliable is not, and we have been deceived.
This matters in the world of academia, where scholars’ work should be their own and where there is a particular value accorded to originality – scholarliness that is fresh, which deals fairly with what has come before and which gives fair ascription to the intellectual heritage of ideas.
In the public domain, though, where someone such as Melania Trump gives an address at a high-profile event, we are entitled to believe that when she speaks about herself and her family, she is being straightforward with us and not merely copying and pasting.
The check and balance of Turnitin or Ithenticate – software that detects plagiarism – should not be necessary.
When it turns out that someone is simply mouthing the words of another, without telling us so, this goes not just to their integrity but also to the mindset that they have: a preparedness to deceive us and which assumes we will not notice or care, and that they can get away with it.
This is profoundly both dishonest and patronising. It is why, legitimately, we are distressed and angry that what appeared to be authentic and meaningful is not.
Plagiarism in public life is an ugly slight upon the intelligence and the trust of an audience, and it is why it deserves to be condemned vigorously and unapologetically.
Ian Freckelton is Professorial Fellow in Law and Psychiatry at the University of Melbourne. This article was first published on The Conversation.
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