Frequently in life, we're called upon to apologize for things we don't feel the least bit sorry about, to people we have absolutely no respect for. It's hard to hit just the right note: you don't want your unconvincing expressions of contrition to be overshadowed by your thinly veiled attacks on your attackers, or vice versa. So how should one go about crafting a truly sincere non-apology? How can one say both "I'm sorry (but not really)" and also "fuck you"?
Look no further than Margaret Wente's recent column dealing with the fact that it really does seem--if you define plagiarism according to how things like dictionaries and professors define plagiarism--like she's been plagiarizing just a bit. (The entire background of the story is here, if you're not yet familiar with it.) It is a MASTERPIECE and suggests various lines of defense for the rightfully accused and wrongfully unrepentant:
1) The standard to which I am being held is ludicrously high and totally unreasonable...
I'm far from perfect.
This is just an awesome way to kick things off. It suggests both that Wente is modest and sensible and that her detractors are demanding she become perfect, rather than simply passably professional.
Most of all, I regret the trouble I’ve created for my Globe colleagues by giving any opening at all to my many critics. In an ideal world, there wouldn’t be any openings. In the real world, there are.
We have only two options: (1) a cloud-cuckoo fantasy land where people are infallible and capable of superhuman feats like using quotation marks in their notes and then reproducing those same quotation marks in their articles, or (2) a "real" world, where well-meaning journalists who try their best pretty much can't help but regularly take ideas and words from other people. Aren't her critics the outrageous ones for expecting journalists NOT to plagiarize?
2)...and the people who are holding me to this standard are irrational ideologues...
What I often am is a target for people who don’t like what I write.
Wente is a no-nonsense truth-teller unafraid to say unpopular, controversial things. The people who find her behaviour unacceptable are not sound, objective readers who object to plagiarism, but loony and rigidly doctrinaire left-wingers who will inevitably object to anything Wente says or does.
2b)...who lack credibility...
And now, some necessary background. The current firestorm started with a blogger named Carol Wainio, a professor at the University of Ottawa and a self-styled media watchdog.
self-styled = the opposite of Globe-styled; without relevant skills; most likely sadly deluded and self-important.
2c)...and are also totally crazy...
Her website, Media Culpa, is an obsessive list of accusations involving alleged plagiarism, factual errors, attribution lapses and much else. She has more than once accused me of stealing the work of other writers with whom I happen to share an opinion.
This poor blogger is demented; she has found so many questionable bits in Wente's body of work not because they are at all questionable, but because she has become pathologically fixated on Wente. She repeatedly accuses Wente of outlandish things and her blog posts are not crisply written, scrupulously reasoned articles, but pathetic and disturbing cries for help.
3)...and also society. Hasn't it changed? I think it's changed.
Journalistic practice around quotations and attribution has become far more cautious in the past few years, and mine has, too. If I were writing that column again today, I would quote and attribute more carefully.
She's so right. Journalists plagiarized like crazy before 2009, because those were different times. In those post-war years, when a new generation was discovering free love and free quotations, what writer didn't just unthinkingly take words from another person and casually reuse them? What reader pre-2009 reader got all nit-picky about who said or thought what, and when? People today are SO UPTIGHT.
3b) Really, it's society that should be apologizing.
But I’m also sorry we live in an age where attacks on people’s character and reputation seem to have become the norm.
An instant classic. Our culture has been cheapened, not by her plagiarism, but by those who have identified and condemned it. She is world-weary, sorrowful. She yearns for the days when informed readers refrained from raising valid concerns.
4) When I was a kid…if you were caught plagiarizing, you got a zero.
Sorry - how did that get there? And how did I manage to forget the quotation marks around it that would have indicated those weren't my words, but someone else's? I'll try that again:
“When I was a kid, everybody knew the rules and the penalties for breaking them. When the teacher walked into class, you stood up. If you arrived late, you got a late slip. If you were late a few times, you got a detention. If you handed in an assignment late without a good excuse, you were marked down, and if you were caught plagiarizing, you got a zero.”
- Margaret Wente ("High-school daze: In Ontario, failure is not an option."Globe and Mail, August 30, 2008)
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