Melania, Michelle and the threadbare platitudes of plagiarism
While the Republican Party is holding its convention, which, among other things, formally produces the party’s nominee for the American presidential election in November, one might expect extensive outcry from their opponents in the Democratic Party, about racism or homophobia. But the biggest outcry so far this week, surprisingly, has been over plagiarism.
Melania Trump, the wife of the Republican nominee, made a speech to the convention about her story, her values, her vision of the future, and her reasons for thinking her husband will be a good president. The candidates’ spouses typically make speeches like this, but by the following morning, news outlets reported that some phrases from Mrs. Trump’s speech were eerily similar to a section of Michelle Obama’s speech from the Democratic Party convention in 2008. It was viral on social media before I had poured my coffee. Mrs. Trump was widely mocked, and the event became a point of attack for demonstrating how terrible the Trump campaign was.
The lifted passages are mainly platitudes about family and values. Mrs. Trump said “Because we want our children in this nation to know that the only limit to your achievements is the strength of your dreams and your willingness to work for them” where Mrs. Obama had said “because we want our children—and all children in this nation—to know that the only limit to the height of your achievements is the reach of your dreams and your willingness to work hard for them.”
And Mrs. Trump said “From a young age, my parents impressed on me the values that you work hard for what you want in life. That your word is your bond and you do what you say and keep your promise” where Mrs. Obama had said “Barack and I were raised with so many of the same values: like, you work hard for what you want in life; that your word is your bond; that you do what you say you're going to do; that you treat people with dignity and respect, even if you don't know them and even if you don't agree with them.” There’s enough similarity in phrasing there that, if these were two of my students turning in essays, I’d have them in my office for a chat about copying.
However, they’re not students, they’re not essays submitted for academic credit, and it’s not even clear who the cheating authors are. Politicians and their spouses typically have “help” writing these things from staff or professional speechwriters. (That alone would get you an F in my class!) These are not serious essays in ideas, they are largely feel-good speeches designed to showcase the appeal a candidate has, and it’s perfectly typical to riddle these with clichés. It seems lazy that Mrs. Trump’s speechwriter went for the “my word is my bond” line, but it surely is not the case that Mrs. Obama was the first person to use that expression. How many of these sorts of speeches are filled with nearly-mechanical iterations of expressions like “if you work hard, you can reach your goals” or “we have commitment to excellence” or “we will never stop working to make X the best X it can be?”
There’s a reason the faculty at commencement exercises sometimes seem bored—while the graduating class may be hearing these “live your dreams” remarks for the first time, the senior faculty have heard them dozens of times. And that’s fine—it’s appropriate for the commencement speaker to make the graduates feel empowered to pursue their dreams, and it’s fine for candidates’ spouses to humanize the candidate by painting him or her as paragon of family and morals.
In serious work, we do hold it to be a grave offense to steal someone’s words and pass them off as your own. That’s fraudulent. It’s less clear that this is a heinous offense when the same clichés and platitudes are passed around over and over, and written for you by staff.
More importantly, time is a zero-sum game, and focusing on improper sharing of clichés in a convention speech means less time spent looking at platform positions and policy proposals. It’s a bad time to be cutting back on that.
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