Politics & Plagiarism
During the 2016 Republican National Convention Melania Trump delivered a speech that plagiarized the speech given by Michelle Obama at the Democratic National Convention in 2008. As always, the responses tended to correspond with ideology: the left largely condemned and mocked it; some on the right downplayed and even defended it. As a professor and an author, I condemn plagiarism and have a few students fail themselves each year by doing what Melania’s speechwriter did. I do not fail students; I merely record their failure.
After my initial mild condemnation of the plagiarism, I came to what is an obvious realization: almost all political speeches are acts of plagiarism. I am not claiming that the vast majority of speechwriters are stealing the words and ideas of others; the plagiarism is of a different sort and this will be clear with a bit of explanation. Put a bit roughly, plagiarism occurs when someone tries to claim that substantial words and ideas are their own when they actually belong to another. By this simplistic definition, when a politician (or spouse) delivers a political speech that was written by someone else as if they were presenting their own words and ideas, then they are plagiarizing. Unless, of course, they engage in proper citation practices. As such, Melania Trump was engaged in double plagiarism: trying to pass off as her own the words stolen from Michelle Obama’s speech by the speechwriter.
An obvious reply to my assertion is that nearly all politicians have speechwriters and the commonness of the practice thus makes it acceptable. This is, obviously enough, the classic fallacy of appeal to common practice: the mere fact that something is commonly done does not make it right. It is, however, fair to point out that if nearly all politicians engage in this practice, then it follows that it would be unfair to single out any particular politician for special criticism.
Another, and better, reply is that speechwriters merely assist the politician in presenting their ideas and words. To use the obvious analogy, when the editors suggest changes to my writing and I follow them, I am not plagiarizing from the editors—this is a legitimate and proper part of the writing process. To use another analogy, if a student goes to a university writing center and gets assistance with improving their paper, that is not plagiarism. Likewise, if a politician has others edit their speech, then that is also legitimate.
This is a point both fair and just, provided that the speechwriters are actually speech editors who assist the politician in crafting their speech. While there is considerable gray area between assistance and plagiarism, there is also a clear zone of plagiarism—the most obvious being a speech written entirely by another. While I cannot draw a clear line that would apply in all cases, a sensible consideration of amount contributed by the alleged author can resolve questions about plagiarism.
While plagiarism is condemned in academics and copyright violations are illegal, it might be claimed that it does not really matter that politicians almost never write their own speeches. After all, only the most naïve or ignorant would think that the words a politician reads from a teleprompter or paper are their own. However, I contend that it does matter and especially matters when a politician is running for office. I will focus on that specific scenario in the discussion that follows.
In theory, one point of a speech by a political candidate is to inform the voters of their views, ideas and policies. As such, the politician should write their speech, Otherwise, the politician is like an actor in a commercial who is endeavoring to sell someone else’s product using a script written by another. This can be countered by contending that a person could have excellent ideas and policies, yet lack the writing skills to craft an effective speech—thus the need for speechwriters.
While I would certainly put an “F” on a paper written this way, it does seem acceptable in the case of politics. To use an analogy, if a skilled doctor who was a poor communicator had her more eloquent assistant explain things to me, then there would be no problem: what matters is not who crafts the exact words, but the information behind them.
That said, there is more to a campaign speech than just putting forth ideas—it also supposed to reveal more about the politician such as wit, skill and character. While it is obviously true that the audience does get to see the politician’s skill at delivering words and timing, this merely reveals the politician’s skill as an actor and orator if the words are not their own. This creates the Cyrano de Bergerac problem: the voters are won over by the fine words of the writer, yet think they “love” the person speaking them. The voters are not, as Trump would rightly say, getting authenticity—they are getting an actor mouthing the words of another. Thus, when a politician reads a speech written by another, voters learn about the actor’s skills and not the actual person.
Some might counter this view by pointing out that what matters is actions—what a person does. After all, a politician could be a skilled writer, yet awful at the job. This is certainly a reasonable point: no one should be judged by words alone (especially when the words are not their own). It is also reasonable to point out that reading a prepared speech is relatively easy—the real challenge lies in a Socratic engagement. This is something that the vast majority of politicians are loath to do for they know how it would go for them. This is why the presidential debates in the United States are not actual debates—just people giving short speeches that have probably been pre-written for them. What, in general, the voters see is a spokesperson for a product that is themselves spewing advertising copy written by someone else. So, the voters have no clear idea of what they are actually buying.