Possible future First Lady of the United States, Melania Trump, wife of Republican Party nominee, Donald Trump, recently delivered a most memorable speech at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, OH. In fact, listening to it many of us experienced a kind of déjà vu. We had heard these words before, hadn't we? Indeed we had, during the 2008 Democratic Convention, in a speech given by Michelle Obama.
Flash forward to the immediate aftermath. Twitter went a-flutter with thousands of comments about the alleged plagiarism. Facebook soon followed and within hours, news networks had jumped on board and were running with the story. Early naysayers who had sided with Mrs. Trump soon hushed their adamant denials, and by the next morning Meredith McIver, a staff writer for the Trump campaign, had taken responsibility for the "mistake" with the words: “This was my mistake, and I feel terrible for the chaos that have caused Melania and the Trumps, as well as to Mrs. Obama,” McIver said in her statement. “No harm was meant.”
So what has the Melania Trump speech debacle taught us about plagiarism?
1) People Still Care About Plagiarism
This point may seem moot for some but in an age where copy and paste seems to be the two favorite functions on many students' laptop keyboards, the public's reaction to the incident shows that people do care about authenticity, honesty, and speaking one's mind (with one's own words). Perhaps many of us cast a blind eye at bits of text copied from the web, perhaps we feel "borrowing" is the name of the game in today's freewheeling internet fueled culture but, when something big is at stake, something as big as, let's say, the Presidency of the United States, then yes, we care.
2) Words Represent Who We Are
The reason why there's been such an outcry probably also has much to do with how we feel about words themselves and the power they have to let others know who we are and what we're about. Anyone who has been at the receiving end of a bold-faced lie knows just how slighted one can feel. We expect our leaders to be strong, to have character, and to speak their minds. When this trust is broken, people respond strongly because the breech seems to represent a lack of ethics, a lack of character and further imply that the speaker has nothing good to say on their own. For the listeners, feelings of acceptance or tolerance are replaced by feelings of doubt, mistrust, or worry.
3) If You Must Borrow, Cite!
Think of just how different and downright unconventional (and dare we say consensus building) Melania Trump's speech would have been if she has cited portions of Mrs. Obama's 2008 speech, clearly and brazenly. She could have mentioned what Mrs. Obama said word for word and then spoken about what those words mean to her, using, in effect, someone else's words as a lead in to her own ideas, her own experiences. Undoubtedly, many would have been shocked but a well-placed nod to the current First Lady would have shown that Mrs. Trump was capable of taking her inspiration from another strong female, even a Democratic one.
3) It Changes the Discourse
In his article "Why the plagiarism allegations against Melania Trump matter for her husband's campaign" journalist David Lauter of The LA Times hit the nail on the head when he posed the argument that the plagiarism charges leveled against Melania Trump matter because they "overshadowed" much of day two of the Republican Convention and effectively changed what was on people's minds, away from thinking about policy and instead, had them thinking about the accusations. Lautner says that by the end "of the convention’s 96 hours, more than 18 had vanished into the maw of Melania Trump’s speech. That’s time Trump will never get back." Accusations of misconduct or wrongdoing foster suspicion. Much like gossip, scandal appeals to people on a primal level, tending to sway them away from loftier or more productive thoughts and into a much different kind of discourse.
In business, it's essential that our words mirror our actions and vice-versa. Saying one thing and doing another erodes trust. Appropriating the language of another might not always be deemed plagiarism but, at the very least, it makes the speaker look less confident, more like an upstart taking their cues from someone they deem better than themselves. Instead of looking capable, the plagarist or copycat comes off as incapable to lead and unwilling to do the hard work of speaking their mind. The American public still cares about plagiarism because they still care about the truth. We all hope for honesty and forthrightness in our dealings with other people. When we feel we can no longer take stock in what someone is telling us, it's extremely hard to preserve the relationship. When we err in our judgment and make an ethical misstep we undermine our own authority and, if we don't correct our ways (and fast), we potentially open the door to gossip, suspicion, and doubt. So what has the Melania Trump speech debacle taught us about plagiarism? Answer: Dont do it. Give credit to those who are due their due. Speak in accord with actions. Honesty still matters and we're happy it does.