Forgiving the plagiarist

published September 12, 2012, MST, page A5

In a November 2004 article called “Something Borrowed” published in The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell talks about a playwright, Bryony Lavery, who plagiarized his work. Lavery lifted words (675, says Wikipedia) from Malcolm’s February 1997 piece “Damaged”—a profile of a psychiatrist who dealt with serial killers—and went on to stage the resulting play, “Frozen,” in Broadway.

Dorothy Lewis was the real psychiatrist whom Gladwell had interviewed and observed for his 1997 story. The character in “Frozen” was uncannily similar to Lewis such that people who knew her, who also saw the play, told her that there was a character who seemed to be her. Lewis complained. She said she felt Lavery had robbed her of her essence.

Elsewhere in the world, Lavery was pilloried as a plagiarist.

In a 2006 interview with The Guardian, Lavery admitted she was stupid and naïve at the time she was writing “Frozen.” She said: “What I’d really hate is if I was always just known as that playwright who was accused of plagiarism. But I’ll probably have to live with it.”

In his 2004 piece, Gladwell describes a tearful Lavery bringing him flowers, sitting in his kitchen, and saying she did not believe, in her heart, that she was plagiarizing his work because it was news.

Gladwell was extremely gracious about the whole thing. In fact, he says in “Something Borrowed”: “Instead of feeling that my words had been taken from me, I felt they had become part of some grander cause…isn’t that the way creativity is supposed to work? Old words in the service of a new idea.”

He believed that what inhibited creativity was new words in the service of an old idea.

This unlikely attitude towards a plagiarist comes to light in the wake of the controversy surrounding our senator, Vicente Sotto III, who says he is a victim of cyberbullying. Sotto is accused of plagiarizing the work of an American blogger and later of a former US senator in arguing his case against the controversial reproductive health bill.

Jonathan Bailey of sums it up neatly: “The purpose [of plagiarism] is singular —to get a good grade without doing the work.”

But not all transgressions are deliberate, say psychologists. Actually, a term—cryptomnesia—has been coined to refer to inadvertent plagiarism. A February 2002 feature on the Web site of the American Psychology Association, written by Siri Carpenter, posits that cryptomnesia is a rather common memory glitch that pervades everyday cognitive functioning. The article quotes psychology professor Richard Marsh, PhD who says: “I think we need to acknowledge that nothing we design is ever truly novel—every creative effort contains vestiges of what we have experienced in the past.”

Marsh was also quoted by Russ Juskalian in a 2009 article called “You Didn’t Plagiarize, Your Subconscious Did,” in The Daily Beast/ Newsweek: “When people engage in creative activity, they are so involved in generating or coming up with something new or novel that they fail to protect against what they previously experienced.”

Juskalian also quotes Harvard psychologist Dan Schacter, who points to implicit memory—“the fact that we can sometimes remember information without knowing that we’re remembering it.”

It stops there. Juskalian warns that neither cryptomnesia nor implicit memory should be used as defenses for plagiarism. “We can guard against the risk with a little conscious effort. Taking diligent notes, reminding oneself to remember not just a good idea, but also its source, or simply pondering whether the clever phrase that popped into one’s head is original, helps fend off cryptomnesia.”

Yes, in the end, we take charge.

Whatever the reason for Sotto’s plagiarism was, his own demeanor explains the public’s reaction to his speeches—hardly creative work, by the way. Nobody is perfect. We all make mistakes—consciously, unconsciously, who can tell? It happens to the best. What makes the difference however is how a person owns up to the breach. Does he deny it? Blame others? Play the victim? Say he is entitled to it?

In the end, it’s not about plagiarism, cryptomnesia, elitism or any other fancy term. It’s human behavior, plain and simple. And for this reason, Senator Sotto—who has given us a glimpse into his person—must live with the consequences of what he did and how he acted in its aftermath.

Now back to the RH bill.