Right now many are enjoying some high quality schadenfreude at the expense of Melania Trump’s alleged plagiarism of an earlier speech by Michelle Obama. The memes are amazing and I think this is a tremendous learning opportunity for our nation’s D and C students. The truth, as they say, will out.
As a professional writer, I abhor plagiarism. It’s a form of creative theft and it should be rooted out wherever and whenever possible. Writing for a living is difficult enough without the greedy cut-and-pasters of this world taking credit for other people’s work. Whenever we can publicly shame an unoriginal cretin you will find me right up front with tar and feather at the ready.
Before we get further into this post, let me be clear, plagiarists can go fuck themselves. Creativity is a gift from the gods and to steal the words of another surely angers them.
I think it might be worth considering speeches, especially political ones, have a bit of a different history than term papers and blog posts. Google the words “politics” and “plagiarism” and you will find many articles written about the history of verbal appropriation.
By the week’s end I imagine your social media feed will be flooded with with comparisons of allegedly plagiarized speeches by every single active politician. Here is one that covers the fairly well known case of Obama’s use of Deval Patrick’s material (it should be noted Patrick said he allowed Obama to “borrow it” after the story broke) :
I’m showing this one above so you can see the sort of thing I’m talking about. One thing I hate about the modern media cycle is the “well-if-am-then-so-are-you” attacks. They are unbelievably dreary.
Anyway, speeches are not purely creative, they have a job to do. They are rhetoric in the purest form and are designed to convince an audience of something. Rhetoric, which is what my bachelor’s degree is in, is sometimes defined as “the art of persuasion.” If you’d like to know more about it, this series of articles from the website The Art of Manliness, is pretty decent.
In my program at UC Berkeley we studied classic orators, like Cicero. If you read many of the great speeches, you’ll find striking similarities. This is because there are established best practices. It’s sort of like how romantic comedies keep to a basic three act structure. There’s a form and deviating from it too much will cause you to lose an audience’s attention.
Political speeches also reference previous historical periods or events to root the speaker in history and manipulate the emotions of the audience. Even nearly identical words and phrases can be used to kind of piggy back on the emotional resonance of well know speeches. This is a powerful technique and humans seem to really like it. Consider how many famous songs either mimic or directly sample popular melodies.
The definitive book on this subject is Aristotle’s The Art of Rhetoric. If you’ve read that book, just about anything else you read on persuasion will seem redundant. A good book to pair with Aristotle’s is Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert B. Cialdini. This latter text lends the reader of the former some new insight from modern psychology and presents the subject through a more modern lens.
One of the most interesting cases of speech plagiarism has to do with Dr. Martin Luther King. Issues with his PHD dissertation are widely documented and it’s possible sections of his famous “I Have a Dream” speech are lifted from other sources. I’d recommend starting with this Wikipedia article if this is new information to you. The article does a pretty good job of staying neutral and makes a useful distinction between plagiarism in an academic and rhetorical setting. Unfortunately, a lot of the people writing about this are racially motivated and you will find some very shitty opinions on this subject.
Dr. King’s alleged plagiarism is about as radioactive a topic as it gets and before you freak out on me, it’s been a topic of conversation for decades. I decided to use it here because it’s a very provocative example.
The PHD dissertation speech is usually explained away as simply some sort of misunderstanding of the rules of citation. As someone who tutored fellow students in college, I think if you assumed positive intent, this is a reasonable explanation. Though, you should not make a practice of giving sainted figures a pass.
The “I Have a Dream” speech is delivered in the tradition of African American oratory, which includes call and response techniques often used in church that leverage phrases that would be known by the audience. If you’re interested in this type of thing, American Radio Works has an incredible series on language and speeches called Say It Plain: A Century of Great African American Speeches.
It’s certainly a bit gauche to compare Melania Trump to Dr. King. That is not my aim here. Honestly, I think it would be difficult to tastefully compare him to any modern celebrity or politician. Even if he stole the “I Have a Dream” speech from someone word-for-word, the power of his delivery and the timing of it in American history would be more than enough to excuse it. The same could not be said for any words I’ve heard in this terrible election cycle.
What I’d like you to consider is that there is a history of plagiarism in political speeches and that many of the people throwing stones would do well to remember they too are dwelling in glass houses. Audiences should remain aware that all political speeches are trying to convince you of something. Listen to the content. Take apart the arguments logically. It’s important.
Ultimately, this plagiarism business is a distraction. I would love to see this amount of attention given to our abysmal candidates’ policies. The effort to produce every article about this, including the one you’re reading now, would have been better spent examining all the retrograde nonsense the ghoulish reptilians running the RNC are floating on top of a turd ship of populist anger.
When the DNC convention rolls around, we will doubtlessly see some similarly clownish flub taking the place of any coverage of the Democrat’s awful economic plans and soul killing nanny state expansion.
If there’s a lesson to be learned in this, it’s that we should always be careful to properly cite our sources, no matter how biased they may be.
Addendum: I hope you might consider the above, especially the Dr. King stuff, requires a lot of maturity and honesty to discuss. This blog has always been about thinking out loud and learning. If you think I misspoke or misstepped, I look forward to learning from your perspective.