plagiarism as a silencing tactic
August 7, 2016
Not sure why plagiarism was on my mind this morning as I was taking a shit, but it was. And it occurred to me that almost more than anything else I’ve seen, plagiarism is the most effective way to silence someone on the internet. Like… Seeing people who (unhappily) dealt with years and years of abuse on social media quit blogging and other stuff because of plagiarism rather than the ongoing abuse and harassment, it suddenly becomes clear to me that this issue is about more than just the exploitation of marginalized ppl’s labour.
From my own experiences… I started Biyuti Publishing as a way to create a paper trail for my writing (and a venue to make some extra money) after seeing a friend of mine have some of their work plagiarized by a major newspaper. It became clear at the time that without some kind of easily identifiable provenance it is simply too easy for mainstream media and/or people with power over you to steal your ideas and work.
But I used to think about this more as an exploitation of labour issue… It still is, mind you, but I begin to realize that this probably isn’t even the main motivation, not really. Because given the state of journalism, its not really likely that any of the white writers who steal work from Black women and other woc are making huge amounts of money. Some money, yes, so profit plays a part.
Seeing veteran bloggers though, and I’m talking about people who helped build the social media context wherein feminism and other social issues were discussed, stop blogging after repeated incidents of plagiarism and not because of the years of abuse should give us all pause. For some not blogging (substitute any method of communicating their ideas freely) was a coinscious decision to try and pivot towards getting paid for their writing. For others? It looks like they just quit. Done.
Sure, you can find some of them on twitter or other places (if you know where to look) doling out their genius in 140 character snippets, but twitter is a pretty ephemeral place for writing. Unlike a blog, it doesn’t have an easily searchable archive of a single person’s writing. Which, of course, is the appeal for someone whose been burned by plagiarism far too many times. Some of them, even worse, have removed their blogs/content from the internet leaving us all little poorer.
So what’s so bad about plagiarism that it manages to accomplish what years of abuse doesn’t? And I’m talking about the eventual silencing of a critical voice (using ‘critical’ in two senses: as in criticism but also as in important and necessary).
As far as I can tell this isn’t about money. Most of us (yes ‘us’ because I’m amongst this group of people being plagiarised), aren’t and haven’t been writing for profit. While I do to a certain extent, if money were even my secondary motivation I’d be a failure. But it isn’t a high priority for me. And certainly, at the beginning before the problem of plagiarism began to encroach on my reality, I didn’t care at all about profiting from my writing. For my part, I don’t think anyone engages in philosophy (unaffiliated with any university or profession) with an eye towards making bundles of money. So its not about money.
It is partially (but not the biggest part) about labour and exploitation. While I continue to think it is important to have a blog where my writing appears for free and in as accessible a fashion as possible, it does burn when I see other people exploiting my labour for their own profit. Even if that profit is only in the form of social capital.
It burns extra when you see people (always people privileged over you btw) not only profiting but getting praised for saying stuff you’ve been harassed for saying. This particularly grates on me. Not sure I have words to express how… idk, demoralizing it is to see some white trans women plagiarise my work in a major lgbt publication to the accolades of her peers when I’ve been harassed for saying the same.
But here we are even moving away from just exploited labour into the coopting of voices. Someone stealing your words and your voice in order to benefit themselves… Even if no profit is made (even cultural capital), it knocks the wind out of you to see your voice coopted and then sanitized for a general audience. It begins a spiral of doubt: is this even worth it? No one listens to my ideas unless their are spoken by a white mouth, why bother anymore? Here we get closer to why this is such an effective silencing tactic. The theft of a voice cannot ever be anything but silencing. But I think there is one last, important stage of this process…
For me, in the end, what gets me is the feeling of powerlessness. Your voice stolen and sanitized and you can’t do anything about it. Sure, sure, you can try to callout the person. Try to make a case for the plagiarism and how you said the thing first. But this rarely (if ever) goes well for the marginalized person. For the person whose words and voice have been plagiarised.
In the first case, most (if not all) of the cases of plagiarism I’ve seen aren’t a matter of a one-to-one correspondence. As in, we aren’t talking about people who just copy and paste your words onto their own site/paper/whatever. Yes. This happens and it sucks but its also pretty easy to see the problem. But most plagiarists I’ve seen are far more clever than this. Instead of outright copying, they take your ideas and introduct subtle changes so that it looks like happenstance that this white trans woman whose been following you for 2+ years and isn’t particularly known for her critical writing puts out this article that sounds like an echo of something you’ve been saying.
Yet, in this overly legalistic world, people often do not think that ‘echoes’ count as ‘plagiarism’. Even though, even by mainstream academic standards, taking someone else’s idea without citing them is plagiarism. But outside of academia and in most contexts? People can read the plagiarised piece with your work and say, “they aren’t the same so this isn’t plagiarism”. Because a lot of ppl pay far too much attention to the cosmetic aspects of an argument, rather than the substance beneath it or the framework surrounding it.
So you see this. You see your voice stolen and coopted. You might even know, depending on your jurisdiction, that even if you had the money, you can’t enforce your copyright (hi USA). But outside such places, yeah, I know about zero people who’d be able to sue someone for copyright infringement. I don’t have that kind of money. In the end, at least, there is no formal process to appeal to. The courts won’t help, not in a system designed to privilege white people.
Maybe you have enough social capital of your own that you might, might be able to raise a stink about it and get attention. Maybe eve compel the person to recant and retract or give you proper attribution. But this isn’t a great option because far more people are likely to accuse you of lying, etc, being an asshole, and so on. You are more likely to see a real increase in the amount of abuse and harassment directed your way.
At the end of it all… you’ve already had years of dealing with abuse online for having a big fucking mouth. Your voice has been coopted and you are powerless to stop it or prevent it. Suddenly it looks like, if you want these things to go away, the best option is to stfu and stop. And so you do and we all lose.
Please remember: I’m not talking about this as an abstract issue. I’ve seen this happen to a lot of different people. Sure, I’m speculating as to how they feel based on how I feel about it, so their motivations for stfu might be different. But it does seem to me that the most effective way to silence a woc is to plagiarize our work. Its super effective. Certainly faster and more effective than stalking and harassing someone for years.