Plagiarism of Ideas: Why Giving Credit Where Credit is Due Matters for Social Justice

This past weekend, someone plagiarized my work. A friend, who had been quoted and linked in the article, emailed me to alert me about it, and I spent the next 24 hours reporting the plagiarist to their university, sending cease and desist emails, and documenting the problems.

What surprised me was how angry it made me. There, on someone else’s blog, without credit, was an article I’d spent three weeks working on, conducted interviews for, and labored over in pitching, writing, and editing. I’d just sent in my invoice for the piece so I could get payment for it. And this person had just … ripped it off. And she’d done so carefully. She cut out parts of my introduction, chopped off portions that referred to my own experiences (which would have indicated that she wasn’t the author), and took the time to format quotes.

When I confronted the plagiarist via email, she told me that she didn’t know what she was doing was wrong, and her blog gets very little traffic, and “why are you so angry?”

It’s this last question that stuck in my craw. Why would I be angry about someone taking my work, editing out significant portions, and passing it off as their own? You’d think such an answer would be obvious, and in some ways it is – it’s something I worked hard on, something I was proud of, and this lady had done none of the work but was trying to claim credit.

And it struck me that it wasn’t just the work. It was the ideas. A large part of my work is embedded in how I think about the world and the ideas I put forward – original thought is just as important as original words. And that got me thinking about how privilege impacts the flow of ideas and their distribution throughout the intellectual sphere.

A couple of months ago, my blogging friend Leigh Kramer interviewed me for a series she was doing on enneagram personalities and blogging. I’m an enneagram type 8 with a 7 wing, meaning, basically, that I like to be assertive, blunt, and confident. One of the faults of type 8 is that we like to control our environment, which is part of why I’m so quick with the block button on Twitter and in the comments section here.

One of the questions Leigh asked me was what frustrates me about blogging, and the first and most honest response I had was that ideas are disseminated along lines of privilege – a man can say almost the exact same thing I’ve been saying for years and will get all kinds of praise for it, while I’m sitting at the sidelines going, “COME ON!” This sort of practice – the all too common plagiarism of ideas – has led to an internal conflict between the part of me that wants these ideas to get out there, no matter who is saying them, and the part of me that wants my ideas to be recognized as mine, especially since they often come out of my unique experience.

Even in talking about this, I want to discuss the concept of “respectability politics” as it relates to how radicalism is perceived by the larger patriarchal structure – but doing so would be the misappropriation of a specific idea that has a specific context.

So how can we talk about this, this flow of ideas throughout the lines of privilege, ideas that become less and less radical the closer they get to the center of patriarchal and racial privilege? At what point do we sacrifice “getting the word out” for “getting the word out with a spokesperson who is actually a member of the group in question?”

I see this conflict a lot within LGBT advocacy. White, straight, cisgender men who work as our “allies,” reaching out to those who are unsure, can have a place. There are, unfortunately, people who will trust white, cis, straight men over us "scary" queers when it comes to our rights.

But how much of this extends out of the idea that the straight, white, cisgender man is somehow more “objective” about the humanity of queer people than actual queer people? How much of this believability of “allies” extends from the fact that they’re allies, not actually part of the group involved?

It’s a question of stakes – for some reason, particularly in American culture, we distrust people who have an actual stake in the issue, who are actually affected by decisions. We’ve learned to praise the dispassionate, “objective” opinion of the bystander over the opinions of the people readily involved in the conflict. We’ve convinced ourselves that rights and progress cannot be gained until we get the “objective” white men (and white women, in many cases) “on our side.” These leads to a culture in which “as long as the idea gets passed on, who cares who’s doing it?”

A truly radical approach to justice and to dismantling the oppressive power structure of the patriarchy is one that runs on proper attribution of ideas because who the ideas come from is just as important as what the ideas are. The exchange of ideas, via plagiarism of marginalized peoples’ work by their supposed allies, is a way of co-opting intellectual discussion and sublimating it into the patriarchal power structure.

If we are not as vigilant about who is allowed to speak as we are about what is being said, we will continue to entrench systems of power and oppression into our intellectual discourse. And a movement to dismantle the state will never come from within the state itself.