An Outsider’s View–19 -Plagiarism is unethical but not illegal
Posted on August 16th, 2012

Shelton A. Gunaratne

 Adversarial rightwing analysts have successfully used the nebulous concept of plagiarism to halt the rapid climb of yet another rising star in American journalism: the “aristocratic” Yale-and-Harvard educated Fareed Zakaria. A naturalized American of East Indian origin, his success as a foreign-affairs analyst and a savvy author, as well as the creator of the “Global Public Square” current affairs show, enabled him to sell his punditry for $75,000 a lecture. In 2010, the government of India honored him with its third highest civilian award called Padma Bhusan.

Thus, Zakaria has become the latest victim of the plague of plagiarism that forced him to suspend his punditry for a month so that he would have the time to meditate and repent over his ethical/moral lapse. He could do so in the distinguished company of a number of other prolific pundits like authors Doris Kearns Goodwin, Alex Haley, and J. K. Rowling; New York Times reporter Jayson Blair, Baltimore Sun columnist Olsen Olesker, and Boston Globe columnist Mike Barnicle, among many others.  

Zakaria’s adversaries think they have “proved” his plagiarism, despite the fact that plagiarism is not a legal offence unlike copyright violation.

Wikipedia asserts that plagiarism remains a problematic concept with “nebulous boundaries.” Dictionaries define plagiarism as “wrongful appropriation,” “close imitation,” or “purloining and publication” of another author’s “language, thoughts, ideas, or expressions,” and the representation of them as one’s own original work. Wikipedia also points out that it is hard to distinguish between imitation, stylistic plagiarism, copy, replica and forgery.

For example, I am indebted to Wikipedia for the preceding paragraph. Although I think that I have adequately acknowledged Wikipedia as my source, yet some nitpicker could accuse me of plagiarism. Computer technology has made it easy to cut and paste. One doesn’t have to go through the tedium of taking down copious notes and laboriously rephrasing them to satisfy the prying eyes of nitpickers.

If one were to look at the papers and theses of students in American colleges and universities, one could invariably find numerous examples of “plagiarism” as defined above.  Robert VerBruggen, the writer for the conservative National Review who exposed Zakaria’s blatant act of plagiarism, might have already become the target of intense scrutiny by his leftist adversaries for throwing stones while living in a glass house.  

Surely, we must understand that the notion of plagiarism as an ethical and moral lapse arose only in the 18th century Europe with the institutionalization of new morals in journalism and the academia. Until then, “copy[ing] the masters as closely as possible” and avoid[ing] “unnecessary invention” were the norms (Wikipedia) that the literati followed. In the non-West, plagiarism does not command that much attention because Eastern philosophy places emphasis on group welfare rather than individual rights and ownership.

In Zakaria’s case, he has apologized for not acknowledging an essay written by Jill Lepore (in the New Yorker in April 2012) as the source of some factual material heused to support his editorial exposition on gun control two weeks ago. Because facts are in the public domain, Zakaria did not violate the copyright law. Regrettably, he failed to alter the syntax that Lepore used to present the facts from her primary source.

It is hard to predict whether Zakaria is likely to regain his former stature as a credible journalist in the West because of his “ethical lapse” that would have hardly got any attention within the norms of non-Western philosophy or pre-18th century European norms. But in the light of the technological environment currently surrounding us, the time has come to disregard the nebulous notion of plagiarism as a serious ethical violation. I am not endorsing plagiarizing, but am only suggesting that it doesn’t deserve so much analytical attention in post-modern society.

From a Buddhist point of view, the Zakaria case illustrates the interaction of tilakkhana“”‚the three marks of existence applicable to all sentient beings: anicca (impermanence), anatta (no self), and dukkha (sorrow). Zakaria fell into sorrow because he did not understand the impermanence of everything and theillusion of an individual self.

 

(Gunaratne is professor of mass communications emeritus at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He is the author of an autobiographical trilogy. The iUniverse Inc has just released the first book of the trilogy titled Village Life in the Forties: Memories of a Lankan Expatriate.)

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