Return to Sanity

This blog has stood abandoned for far too long. It’s time for me to start writing again.

Of course, writing is pretty much all I’ve been doing for the past five months. I’ve been writing lesson plans (as in complete, detailed ones, which I haven’t written since my second year of teaching),  MA papers, and comments in students’ short stories. This day marks the end of the single, most savagely stressful semester I’ve ever gone through.

That’s all water under the bridge, though. I’m now finally able to breathe, and I’ll not belabor the point by telling everyone how bad it was.

Despite my personal return to the sanity of vacation, however, I was greatly appalled to learn that the highest court in this nation has taken a great big leap out of sanity.  I’m referring to the recent plagiarism fiasco.

It’s quite ironic that this commotion reaches the public eye at about the same time that I had to deal with plagiarism cases among my own students.  While my own efforts at discovering and dealing with the problem have thankfully been met with success, (The identity of the students shall of course remain private as far as I’m concerned; if they choose to reveal themselves, it’s another story.) it seems that the Supreme Court is resorting to some rather fiery and eloquent squirming.

That’s right. Squirming. Their point is that plagiarism is “okay” if there is no “malicious intent.”  Read over that phrase a few times and try to see the implications.

Dictionary.com says the legal definition of “malice” is “evil intent on the part of a person who commits awrongful act injurious to others.” I don’t know if the meaning of malice in the Philippine legal system is different (how I wish Lolo Macky were still alive), but  by simply looking at this, one begins to wonder: When isn’t plagiarism malicious?

However you slice it, plagiarism is passing off someone else’s work as yours. We can call it many things: intellectual dishonesty would be a rather academic term for it; intellectual fraud, on the other hand, sounds far more serious and even criminal. Intellectual irresponsibility is a bit kinder, while intellectual incompetence has the bearing of a scathing ad hominem.

The actual term for this act, however, is quite loaded on its own: Plagiarism is etymologically based in the Latin plagiarius, or kidnapper; other articles on this same topic have mentioned this. Kidnapping is unlawfully abducting and holding a person against his will. What one does with the kidnap victim varies between the “special interest groups” committing the crime, though there was a time when what we call “kidnapping” now was more along the lines of “slave raiding”: One abducts and holds the person unlawfully with the intent of either selling that person or forcing him or her to perform labor.

This analogy seems to fit how plagiarism now works, really: The plagiarist takes someone else’s work and lets that stolen information do the work for him. This is something I’ve recently begun telling my students to illustrate why it’s such a serious crime. I cannot see how doing this can possibly lack malicious intent. Even if the root cause is sheer laziness, the end result is still the same: “Here is my work, under my name, even if it really isn’t, and any credit will go to me, even if it shouldn’t.”

There are a few ways to weasel out of this, but I’ll focus on two related thoughts:

1. “I didn’t know it was wrong.”

Fair enough. However, is “Oh, there’s a cellphone left on top of a table at Starbucks. I need to send a text. I’ll just “borrow” this for a moment, send a text, and put it back” excusable on the grounds that people don’t know it’s wrong? Anyone who has a concept of right and wrong and property should know it’s wrong. How horrific it would be, indeed, if the people who work in our judicial system don’t!

To the point, it is often said that ignorance is never an acceptable defense in a legal setting.

Thankfully, this isn’t the excuse being used by the SC.

2. “I didn’t mean any harm”

Words fail me. Imagine swinging around an assault rifle in public with your finger on the trigger, then saying you didn’t mean any harm when you did it. This defense (which is the defense the SC is using) is ludicrous in ignoring the reality of the act’s harmful nature. It doesn’t matter if a man swinging around an assault rifle doesn’t INTEND to cause harm; the fact of the matter is that doing so IS harmful.

Granted, the harm caused by 5.56 mm ammunition is more concrete than the harm caused by plagiarism. This is because the victim of the harm here is as abstract as the crime. The victim here is one’s credibility, or perhaps one’s integrity.

Now maybe one might argue that playing with automatic firearms in public is a rather extreme idea; I grant that it is. Let us therefore use a more innocuous example: common negligence (which seems to be the culprit in this case, as a Word processor program was blamed for the deletion of the footnotes). Obviously, there is no malicious intent in common negligence. Perhaps one simply forgets to do one’s job thoroughly and properly, as the profession demands.

I’m sure the people whose negligence resulted in the spate of recent oil spills did not mean to cause widespread ecological damage.  That still does not exonerate them, especially since their failure to do their job properly resulted in the damage. Their lack of malicious intent does not dampen the damage. At all.

That said, how does one even prove that there was no malicious intent? It’s so easy to deny malicious intent! Is it even an acceptable defense for any other crime? Why should it be okay with intellectual fraud?

The shocking irony here is that the Supreme Court, whose name alone evokes awe in the hearts of us lay citizens, is now on trial in the sphere of public opinion, and that it seems that only they (and not even all of them) insist on this rather bizarre position. My 13- and 14-year old students have a more clear-minded stand on plagiarism than these decorated justices. Even those who committed the act at least admitted to being in the wrong and accepted the due consequences. Even Manny Pangilinan, at the height of his own plagiarism scandal, exited honorably by admitting it and stepped down from his privileged position. Why is the Supreme Court doing this? Are they above the law?

Even more frustrating is the comment issued by the SC against their critics:

“They are hypocrites who believe that the courts should be as error-free as they themselves are.”

Whoa, whoa, whoa. I don’t know about the other critics, but I would be happy if they just admit that a mistake was made, that plagiarism is wrong, that there is no excuse for it, and implement the necessary sanctions against the intellectual fraud that was committed—the higher standard of the courts notwithstanding. We’re all imperfect people, yes, but saying that human imperfection is an excuse to commit a crime is like saying I shouldn’t wash my dirty underwear because it stinks.

Is intellectual fraud really something they want my students to commit? Should I stop punishing my students for plagiarism because I cannot prove their malicious intent? Oh please.

~ by J. R. R. Flores on October 23, 2010.

One Response to “Return to Sanity”

  1. Writing is supposed to be a form of communication. It’s supposed to be used to say one’s opinion or thoughts about something. Plagiarizing just defies that – you just use someone else’s words or work for your own sake. It’s slightly different with works like research papers and the like, but you’re still using someone else’s words for it – it’s still stealing.

    It saddens me to think that we still have to tell the Supreme Court why this is so wrong in the first place.

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