So, more wailing and gnashing of teeth about Andrew Breitbart.
The New York Times has a piece on plagiarism that reviews an increasingly prominent argument that contemporary college students simply don’t know that copying the words of another writer verbatim is plagiarism, that they’ve grown up in a different kind of textual environment that will eventually produce new norms for everyone.
I’m sympathetic to certain versions of this claim. I’d agree that many students are taught poorly how to cite online material. I’d agree that there really are new kinds of text-making practices in digital environments that arise out of networked or collective systems for sharing information.
What we’ve come to understand as plagiarism is a relatively short-term consequence of a highly individualized and relatively recent conception of authorship, creativity and property rights. Many years ago, I was surprised to find that 18th and 19th Century European travel writers sometimes committed what I saw as outright plagiarism, reproducing or directly paraphrasing work by an earlier traveller. Over time, I began to realize that for some writers, this was a “best practice”: if you didn’t have time to visit an area along your route, but someone else had, then include what they had to say, but fold it into your own authoritative account.
But I’m enough of a devotee of our recent view of authorship and creativity (and property) to think that the norms established around plagiarism during the 20th Century need some kind of continuing defense, just with sufficient awareness of the changes in textual production and circulation.
What really worries me is what’s happening to the larger purpose of the analytical writing which tempts some to plagiarism. The thing I’m honestly afraid of is that we’ve come to a point where the professional value of learning to build strong arguments based on and determined by a command over solid evidence is in rapid decline.
I think in the last four decades of the 20th Century of American life, the ability to build a strong case whose factual foundation could withstand fairly determined examination by a variety of critics paid off in a wide variety of professional and personal contexts. I’m not saying that the quality of knowledge claims in that era was always beyond dispute: quite the opposite. A lot of social research from that time turns out to have been flawed in its claims, in its evidence, in its rhetoric, in its method. But I do think that both academics and non-academic professionals often tried hard to get it right, changed features of the arguments they were inclined to make based on evidence, and when their evidence was found seriously wanting, abandoned or strongly modified views that they’d previously held.
There are a zillion reasons why that spirit has receded strongly from public life. It’s not all about the sudden surrender of the Republican Party hierarchy to a populist fringe that treats all evidence as infinitely malleable to its needs, and evidentiary debates as the culturally perverse hobby of an elite it disdains. But that’s the latest and strongest fruit to hang from long-growing roots and branches. The upshot is that we’re in a moment where it’s not clear that there are any meaningful professional, social or personal consequences to believing whatever you want and unabashedly cutting “evidence” to fit the Procrustrean bed of your beliefs. Evidence or facts are becoming a rhetorical flourish, like opening a letter “Dear Sir:”, or calling an openly totalitarian nation “the Democratic Republic of”. You include “evidence” because that’s the form, but the substance hardly matters.
So here’s the question, then: am I committing a kind of futureward malpractice if I tell students that the quality of their evidence matters? Is this one more way that I’m just an academic training people to be academics and ignoring the future needs of other professions and careers in the world as it actually is? I know this sounds like dramatic pearl-clutching, but I look at the case of Breitbart and a seemingly endless parade of other pundits and writers wrong about small facts and big facts, casually mangling and manipulating evidence, and I don’t see that it hurts any of them. I don’t see that the mainstream media cares much any longer, if it ever did, about enforcing a different standard. I don’t see that this kind of writing or speaking means anything negative for a political career or a career in public service. Business, law, medicine: if you’re on top, you’re not going to get called to account for any distortion, no matter how gross, and if you’re not on top, you’ll be producing distortions on command for those at the top.
It’s not just the professions, either. There’s one blog that I really love to read that has a regular commenter who has a near-perfect style that combines the recirculation of right-wing talking points, the undisguised evasion of unwanted ‘frames’, and a passive-aggressive retreat into personal and anecdotal accounts when directly challenged, a style for which Ronald Reagan should have been awarded a patent. I think this style probably makes this person successful at producing outcomes in her everyday civic and professional life. I know that when I’m in everyday civic contexts and I come up against someone who fuses that kind of approach with a dogged determination to have their way, I just say screw it and walk away unless the stakes are the highest possible. (And that’s partly how we get to situations where the stakes are the highest possible, because of incremental erosion on smaller issues.)
So maybe that’s the kind of writing and speaking we need to train our students to do: rhetorically effective and infinitely mutable on substance, entirely about rather than just sensibly attentive to affect and audience. At what point is it perverse to continue making buggy whips while the Ford plant churns away right next door?